Police Use of Force Laws: Minnesota Falls Short

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Today, a Minnesota court will hear several significant motions in the cases against Derek Chavin and the three other former Minneapolis police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd. Among the matters Judge Peter Cahill will consider in the September 11 hearing are the state’s motion for a joint trial of all defendants and the defendants’ motions to change venue from Hennepin County. Motions to dismiss charges also have been filed and remain pending. The court’s ruling on these matters will have a significant impact on how the cases proceed.

The four defendants face charges of murder and manslaughter, but the charges appear to sidestep the fact that they were committed by armed state actors. Few U.S. states have criminal statutes that specifically address the use of excessive force or other violations of law by police officers. Like Minnesota, most states use generally-applicable statutes to prosecute police misconduct, such as statutes prohibiting criminal homicide or assault.     

Attempting to fit the square peg of human rights violations by armed state actors into the round hole of general criminal statutory schemes can be challenging. Violence between civilians is qualitatively different from that experienced by civilians at the hands of the state.

International standards on police use of force address this disconnect, yet no major U.S. city follows international standards regarding police use of force.. These standards call for armed state actors to follow basic principles:

  1. In any use of force, the police and other law enforcement officials must respect the principles of necessity and proportionality.
  2. Each use of force must be justified and justifiable.
  3. Rules governing the use of force, including weapons that may lawfully be used, should be set out in national legislation and other administrative provisions.
  4. Medical assistance shall be provided to any person, including a criminal suspect, who has been injured during action by any law enforcement official.
  5. The police and other law enforcement officials shall be held accountable for their use of force.
  6. Operations shall be planned to minimize the risk of death or injury.

International standards on police use of force derive from core treaty obligations which recognize the right to life, security of the person, equal protection, and non-discrimination. International handbooks[1] and codes of conduct for law enforcement officials flesh out international legal standards. Core international treaties and documents address police misconduct, including the Universal Declaration Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, and the Convention against Torture (CAT). 

In particular, the excessive use of force by police is specifically prohibited by two major international treaties to which the United States is party: the ICCPR and the CAT.  While U.S. reservations to the treaties mean they require specific enacting legislation to create civil or criminal liability for the state actor, the rights enshrined by these treaties are no less real.

The international standards seek to counter the risks of human rights violations which attend the deployment of armed state actors. Police—who are trained to use authorized and reasonable force against civilians when they deem it necessary—must be held accountable for human rights violations when they abuse that power.

Like many U.S. states, Minnesota fails to meet these international standards regarding police use of force. The resultant accountability gap has contributed to growing impunity for extrajudicial killings and for sub-lethal human rights violations.

Earlier this year, the University of Chicago Law School International Human Rights Clinic published Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Laws and Standards. The report scored the United States’ 20 largest cities on their compliance with international law. The authors employed four key measures in their assessment: legality, necessity, proportionality, and accountability. Its findings are sobering and help to explain the escalating demands for fundamental changes in policing.

“No city satisfied the requirement of legality because no state has a human rights compliant state law. The failure to enact legislative standards on police use of force undermines the rule of law, frustrates accountability for misuse of state power, and weakens police department policies.”

What makes for compliant state law?

  1. LEGALITY | Use of force policies must sit within a human rights compliant federal and state legislative framework that properly balances security needs with individual human rights.
  2. NECESSITY | All law and policies on police use of force must comply with the necessity requirement and only allow for force when “absolutely necessary” to save the life or prevent serious bodily harm of an officer or civilian as a “last resort” to other alternatives.
  3. PROPORTIONALITY | In addition to being necessary, the use of force must always be proportionate to the threat the officer confronts and weighed against the fundamental human rights of the individual, including the rights to life and security of person.
  4. ACCOUNTABILITY | Accountability requires an independent, external review of each use of lethal force by the police as well as departmental transparency of use of force policies and practices.

While legislation passed in Minnesota in July 2020 took a step toward bridging the accountability gap, much work remains. At the top of the list: enacting legal limits on police use of force that comply with international human rights and standards of necessity, proportionality and accountability and protect and enable individual human rights.

Learn more:

Retired attorney Duane Krohnke walks through the September 11 hearing agenda here.

You can find a detailed analysis of the law on police use of force worldwide maintained by the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.


[1] See, for example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Handbook on Police Accountability, Oversight and Integrity (New York, 2011) and United Nations Convention Against Corruption (New York, 2004).

Criminal Charges Reflect, Reinforce Power Imbalance Between Law Enforcement and Communities

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The chest camera footage of former Minneapolis police officers Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane—two of the men involved in killing George Floyd—has been made available online. The opening minutes of video illuminate a casual brutality and violence by the police. Lane approaches the car from behind, banging on the window with his Maglite. He clearly startles Mr. Floyd, shouting at him to show his hands. Within 15 seconds, Lane draws his gun on a man suspected of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Anyone would have panicked. Despite Lane repeatedly yelling at him to “show his fucking hands,” Mr. Floyd stays polite, looking down, calling Lane “sir” or “Mr. Officer.” Mr. Floyd is distraught. He tells Lane that he has been shot before. He begs him not to shoot. He tells him that his mother has just died. He tells them he’s just had COVID. As the minutes unfold the officers continue to escalate the man’s panicked state until Derek Chauvin pins him to the ground.

While Minnesota prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the officers, the charges available to prosecutors have raised questions.

For some abolitionists, the filing of any criminal charges—including against the officers involved in Floyd’s killing—perpetuates a fundamentally tainted system. International human rights law recognizes that victims of human rights violations have a right to a remedy and that accountability is an important tool to prevent future harms. Neither consideration necessitates nor is limited to criminal prosecution and punishment (check out our earlier blog here).

But others have questioned why Chauvin doesn’t face first-degree murder charges.

What charges do the former officers face?

Following the transfer of prosecution to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with second-degree and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter, for the death of George Floyd. The three officers with Chauvin at the time of Floyd’s killing, Lane, Kueng, and Tou Thao, each have been charged with aiding and abetting second- degree murder and manslaughter.

Derek Chauvin faces three separate charges, each with different elements:

  • Second-degree unintentional murder requires that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death and Chauvin was committing or attempting to commit a felony offense (in this case, assault) at the time. The maximum sentence is 40 years in prison, with a recommended sentence of 10-15 years.
  • Third-degree murder requires Chauvin to commit an act that was “eminently dangerous to others… without regard for human life,” and the act caused Floyd’s death. The maximum sentence for third-degree murder is 25 years in prison and the recommended sentence is 10-15.
  • Manslaughter requires showing Floyd died because Chauvin deliberately committed an act that has an unreasonable risk of death. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 10 years in prison and/or payment of a fine up to $20,000. The recommended sentence for manslaughter is 4 years in prison.

Aiding and abetting charges require that the other officers intentionally aided, advised, counseled, or conspired with Chauvin to commit the acts that caused Floyd’s death. This charge does not require Chauvin be convicted for either murder or manslaughter. A conviction for aiding and abetting carries the same penalties as for the crimes of murder or manslaughter faced by Chauvin.  

Why not first-degree murder?

Although prosecutors have announced their intent to seek stiff sentences, The officers involved in the killing of George Floyd have not been charged with first-degree murder. Under Minnesota law, first-degree murder charges can be brought only when there is evidence of an intentional killing after premeditation, or that the killing took place in the course of specifically enumerated situations. Amongst those situations, Minnesota statute 609.185 defines first degree murder as intentionally causing the death of a peace officer, prosecuting attorney, judge, or a guard employed at a Minnesota state or local correctional facility while the person is engaged in the performance of official duties.

Minnesota is not out of step with other states. A 2016 survey by the Anti-Defamation League shows that all 50 states provide harsher penalties when a law enforcement officer is the victim. For example, in Michigan, obstructing a police officer, even if no injury results, is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, while an officer’s assault upon a civilian would result in a maximum penalty of 93 days. If a civilian injures a police officer with a firearm in Pennsylvania, they face a sentence of up to 40 years–similar to the sentence Chauvin faces for second-degree murder in Minnesota.

The United States is not alone. Canada’s Criminal Code provides an automatic upgrade to first-degree murder where the victim is a police officer. In Chile, an “attack against authority” may be separately charged with a penalty that includes imprisonment and a substantial fine. The United Kingdom and Albania provide mandatory statutory sentencing of at least 30 years for individuals who murder police officers. In Armenia and Norway, violence against an officer is a separate offense with its own prison sentence. Some countries have taken a different approach. Germany rejects the idea that police officers require more protection than civilians, recognizing that the police have unique training, legal authority, and special equipment. Similarly, Spain and Liechtenstein do not enhance penalties for murder when the victim is a police officer. South Africa rejected a proposal to provide harsher sentencing for violence against police officers after multiple police killings occurred. 

The rationale for aggravated charges or enhanced penalties for crimes against police typically involves deterrence. Proponents of deterrence argue that, when the state asks an individual to put themselves in harm’s way, the state should take measures to prevent them from being injured or killed. But it also involves the idea of retribution, suggesting that police officers are either more valuable or more vulnerable that civilians.

Different standards: who needs protection from whom?

Meanwhile, there are no corresponding enhanced penalties or elevated charges for crimes committed by police. This asymmetrical approach, which treats crimes against police more severely than crimes by police, reinforces the power imbalance between the police and the policed. While many jurisdictions have statutes that criminalize abuse of official authority, if a police officer assaults or kills someone, they face the same charges as anyone else. Law enforcement officials may also benefit from specific defenses and from qualified immunity, which protects them from claims of civil rights violations. (The Supreme Court decided earlier this summer to let an expansive interpretation of this judicial doctrine stand. For a deeper dive into how qualified immunity has undermined accountability for crimes by police read our June 15 blog).

Police officers undoubtedly take on additional—often significant—personal risk in the course of their duties. But they also assume an elevated duty of public trust as people who are armed, trained to use sub-lethal and deadly force, and vested with authority to pursue, arrest, and detain people. Many international human rights standards exist precisely to limit abuses of this power by armed state actors.

International policing standards recognize that when police violate this public trust, both the directly harmed individual and society suffer. But a recent study by the University of Chicago Law School’s Global Human Rights Clinic found that police forces in the United States’ 20 largest cities fail to meet basic international standards regarding use of force.

One important place to begin is eliminating laws which perpetuate the imbalances and racial disparities that allow extrajudicial killings to occur. Differential treatment where police officers are the victims weakens accountability.[1] Policies that enhance punishment for crimes committed against law enforcement officers, while failing to hold law enforcement officers responsible for crimes committed by them ensures the continued power imbalance between citizens and police officers. This power imbalance is exacerbated by the resources, training, and power police officers wield. Calls for police reform recognize that an important step is balancing these power dynamics by utilizing resources and funding for prevention and alternative forms of policing. And, States have recognized these issues in some areas, such as providing specific penalties and charges for sexual conduct by police officers or correction officers. States must also reflect the enhanced duty of care police officers owe to citizens by virtue of these dynamics.

And while criminal charges may be important steps towards justice, they fail to address the deep layers of harm which extrajudicial killings inflict on the targeted communities. Limiting criminal accountability to the four individuals involved sidesteps the systemic betrayal which occurs when power given to armed state actors tasked with keeping the “community” safe is used for repression and violence.


[1] See, also, MN Stat.609.2231: subd. 1: physical assault of a police officer is 4th degree assault (a gross misdemeanor, raising the penalty from 90 days for other assaults to 365 days); an assault inflicting demonstrable (observable) bodily harm or throwing bodily fluids is a 3-year felony (would be a misdemeanor upon a civilian).

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Navigating a New Normal in Relationship Building

Samantha Nelson, summer Development Intern at The Advocates For Human Rights and senior at University of Michigan, Class of 2021

Before joining The Advocates as an intern, I had only a vague idea how nonprofits operate and knew little about the meaning of and working in development. Eight weeks later, and I can confidently say that my knowledge of the inner workings of the nonprofit world has grown ten-fold. 

At the core of development is building long-lasting relationships. The common thread through all the projects that I tackled over the past few months has been sustaining connections. For example, I worked on an intern engagement campaign that showcases the valuable role of young people in human rights advocacy. The project consisted of asking current interns from all different programs to describe the experiences that brought them to The Advocates. I also wanted to know why they felt compelled to be involved in human rights. Aside from helping me learn more about my fellow interns, the project also taught me how to be a more effective communicator, a critical skill in development. When I drafted intern emails, I had to be mindful of the language I used, the tone I took, and the clarity of my request. Reflecting on my communication with the interns now, I realize that the goal of the campaign wasn’t just to extract information from each individual, but to form relationships, to really get to know each intern with intentionality and genuine interest. 

Strengthening relationships was also at the core of another project. I wrote handwritten cards to longtime friends and partners of The Advocates and learned that seemingly small tokens like birthday cards demonstrate a commitment of time and energy and, by extension, symbolize a commitment to the supporters of The Advocates themselves. Investing time is crucial to constructing long-lasting relationships, which, as I’ve come to learn, is something that development prioritizes in all of its interactions.  

Deep-rooted relationships are the key to running a sustainable nonprofit because it’s these relationships that we can depend on during difficult times. And these are difficult times indeed. In the midst of a global public health and racial crisis, this may well be one of the most trying years that many of us have ever faced. These crises have created tangible obstacles to establishing connections and maintaining relationships. With our external partners, we face new challenges of planning engaging virtual events, accommodating different preferences, and preserving a spirit of positivity and hope. Internally, we lose the small moments of office coffee chats, intern lunches, and the flow of the workday. At the center of one of the most formidable moments in history, we’ve all been forced to take pause and wonder where there is room for relationship-building in this unfamiliar reality. 

Countless uncertainties and barriers lie ahead for us all. Daunting as the future may feel, there is always room for relationship-building. As I reflect back on my internship at The Advocates, I realize that relationship-building, though undeniably difficult, is not only still possible, but also essential. While there were no talks over coffee or lunch breaks with coworkers, there were brown bag lunches, weekly virtual chats with cohorts of interns and various program directors, and mentorship zoom calls. And although the workday couldn’t fit the conventional nine to five structure, there were still weekly staff meetings with updates on the progress of respective programs and stories of both challenges and triumphs. Even without in-person interaction, I realize that I was able to build relationships: during weekly meetings with my supervisors, while collaborating on projects with my coworker Chloé, and through check-in Zoom “coffee chats” with my internship mentor. Though I hadn’t expected to form bonds over zoom calls and WhatsApp messages this summer, I’m grateful for these virtual moments and the knowledge I’ve gained from the people with whom I spent them.   

In times of crisis and inconsistency, we all need connection and relationships to ground us. Though the next year will present hurdles to overcome, development’s role will be more vital than ever before because what the world needs now is connection. Development is the glue of the nonprofit. It keeps all of us– staff, donors, interns, and friends– engaged and united under the common goal of creating a more equal and just society.  

When I think back to the handwritten thank you letters, my mind always wanders to the same line, ‘You are changing the world for good.’ These words encapsulate the essence of The Advocates’ goal to not only create a more inclusive and just world, but to inspire others to do the same. I like to think that development’s role is to connect us to one another and guide us all toward that shared goal, a goal that, whether in person or through a computer screen, I know we’ll keep fighting for. 

By Samantha Nelson, Development Intern at The Advocates For Human Rights and a senior at the University of Michigan.


The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Poland’s Dangerous Withdrawal From The Istanbul Convention

Introduction

Poland has ratified the Istanbul Convention, yet announced plans to withdraw from the treaty. Related attacks on reproductive rights, the independence of the judiciary, sex education, and civil society have abounded.

The Istanbul Convention

The Istanbul Convention, or the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, was adopted in November 2011. This treaty seeks to address gender-based violence against women in all its various forms. Members are expected to amend their laws to define and criminalize violence against women and children, provide public education, and protect victims by establishing strong support services, in line with international standards.

The Status of the Istanbul Convention in Poland

Poland signed the Istanbul Convention on December 18, 2012 and ratified it on August 1, 2015. Since then, claims that the Istanbul Convention promotes so-called “gender ideology,” a conservative fiction that equates the goals of women’s and LGBTI rights activists with destroying the traditional family unit (consisting of a married man and woman and their children) have instigated threats to withdraw from the treaty. On July 25, 2020, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro announced that Poland will withdraw from the treaty. The Council of Europe condemned the action in a statement released on July 26, 2020, warning Poland that such a move would have serious implications for the protection of women. Thousands in Poland began protesting after Minister Marlena Malag, Minister of Family, Labour and Social Policy tweeted on July 19, 2020 that Poland was preparing to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. Several organizations, including the Ordo Iuris Legal Institute, have long supported withdrawal from the convention, arguing that it is a threat to traditional family values. Together, with dozens of pro-family organizations, they began collecting signatures for a citizens’ legislative initiative called “Yes to Family, No to Gender.” The petition lobbies the Polish government to withdraw from Istanbul Convention and propose an alternative treaty, the International Convention on the Rights of the Family.

Other Legislation

The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention and such initiatives are not a new development. Two other citizens’ initiatives recently garnered sufficient signatures to be introduced to the legislature, one of which is the Stop Pedophilia Bill. This bill would criminalize “anyone who promotes or approves the undertaking by a minor of sexual intercourse or other sexual activity.” This could include those who provide sex education or information to minors, such as health educators or providers. 

The bill has been supported by the Law and Justice party, which controls the Sejm legislative body and the presidency. President Duda, relying on anti-LGBTI rhetoric, was re-elected in July 2020. State-run television speculated “on whether Duda’s presidential opponent would have forced LGBTI education on all children, whether he would replace independence-day parades with gay-pride parades, [and] whether Duda should push for a clause in the constitution banning gay marriage.” These sentiments were also echoed by a large part of the Catholic Church, including the archbishop of Krakow who has referred to homosexuals as “the rainbow plague.”

Response of Civil Society

Attacks on NGOs in retaliation for participating in marches for women’s rights have occurred. On the one-year anniversary of the 2016 demonstrations, the government raided many women’s rights organizations. Many organizations, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, anti-violence, and non-discrimination, have seen their work demonized. Those working in the public sector, such as government employees or teachers, are under pressure not to collaborate with those organizations. Those that continue to work with the NGOs or participate in the women’s rights protests often find themselves subject to disciplinary hearings or other retaliation.

When the two new citizen’s bills were introduced in April during the pandemic, activists again protested by using online platforms, placing signs in their windows and marching in the streets while practicing social distancing. Many who left their homes now face fines of up to $7000, despite wearing masks and leaving their homes for everyday necessities.

Implications

The withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention will greatly impact victims of gender-based violence against women, both in Poland and internationally. In Poland, human rights activists will no longer have the treaty as a tool to push for legislative and societal changes. Such withdrawal sets a dangerous precedent and a is a serious backlash to women’s rights.

By Elizabeth Montgomery, Staff Attorney, Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates For Human Rights.


The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Armed and Unaccountable, Federal Forces Use Tactics Honed at the Border against Protestors

The deployment of anonymous armed federal agents, now identified as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in Portland has yielded shocking reports of arbitrary arrests, detention without charge, and short-term disappearances, in addition to injuries to protesters resulting from use of sub-lethal force and chemical agents. Garnering less attention, but no less troubling, on July 8, the Department of Justice launched Operation Legend and deployed federal forces under the guise of addressing “violent crime” in Kansas City, Missouri. Plans for more operations in other cities have been reported.

What explains the federal government’s apparently newfound zeal to engage in garden-variety policing of the kind usually reserved to local and state law enforcement?

Widespread protests around the United States, sparked by the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, provided the administration with a pretext to flex its paramilitary muscle. In June, the president’s desire to “dominate” protestors and the attorney general’s promise to deploy “even greater law enforcement resources” in Washington made news.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported a chilling statement by acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf that his agency “will not allow anarchists, disrupters and opportunists to exploit the ongoing civil unrest to loot and destroy our communities. While the department respects every American’s right to protest peacefully, violence and civil unrest will not be tolerated. We will control the situation and protect the American people and the homeland at any cost.” [emphasis added]

International human rights standards explicitly forbid defense of public safety “at any cost.” Certain human rights – including freedom from arbitrary detention or unacknowledged detentions and freedom of opinion – can never be waived, no matter how severe the state of emergency.

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie asks, “How can this be a job for Homeland Security?

The DHS Rapid Deployment Teams followed an executive order directing federal agencies to send personnel to protect monuments, statues, and federal property during continuing protests against systemic racism and police brutality. The RDTs are reportedly “made up of officers from Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement who back up the Federal Protective Service, which is already responsible for protecting federal property.”

By deploying DHS forces in Portland, the country is witness to abusive tactics long used against immigrants, border communities, and communities of color. While federal courts occasionally have reminded the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that the border is not a “rights-free zone” (read Judge Donovan Frank’s 2018 opinion in a case brought by our colleagues at the ACLU), their effective jurisdiction has spread to operate freely within 100 miles of US land and water borders where approximately 63 percent of the US population resides. And even the extrajudicial execution of a teenager who was standing in Mexico at the time he was shot by a Border Patrol agent has been found to be acceptable. (DOJ investigators declined to prosecute after finding the agent did not violate CBP policy and the Supreme Court allowed the killer to evade civil liability through its overbroad qualified immunity doctrine).

Since its inception, DHS has run this rapidly expanding agency (CBP boasts more than 60,000 employees)  with a dangerous mix of extraordinary power and little accountability. The agency operates with virtually no transparency, making it chronically difficult to get answers from CBP officials about policies, procedures, or practices. A 2014 report examining 809 complaints filed between January 2009 and January 2012 found:

“For years it has been reported that U.S. Border Patrol agents routinely ignore the constitutional and other legal rights of both immigrants and U.S. citizens. More precisely, agents of the Border Patrol are known for regularly overstepping the boundaries of their authority by using excessive force, engaging in unlawful searches and seizures, making racially motivated arrests, detaining people under inhumane conditions, and removing people from the United States through the use of coercion and misinformation.”

American Immigration Council, “No Action Taken: Lack of CBP Accountability in Responding to Complaints of Abuse,” 2014.

CBP’s powers are extraordinary. What other federal agency sets up checkpoints for document inspection, engages in race-based traffic stops under color of law, insinuates themselves into routine law enforcement encounters as “interpreters,” and boards buses and trains demanding identity documents? These tactics are tailor-made for repression.

So it’s not surprising that Acting DHS Secretary Wolf said in a Fox News interview on July 21 that DHS agents are “having to go out and proactively arrest individuals.” After all, arresting people without probable cause is business-as-usual for his agency. (It is also unconstitutional. Harvard law professor Andrew Crespo breaks it down in a fabulous Twitter thread).

Perhaps most disturbing, however, is the recasting of ICE and CBP as “intelligence” rather than “law enforcement” agencies. Reported in February, the move threatens to make these forces even more impervious to accountability.

Human rights violations, like human rights themselves, are interconnected and interdependent. Our outrage needs to be too.

The same tactics refined at the border are now being deployed to “control anarchists,” according to Acting DHS Secretary Wolf (whose @DHS_Wolf twitter feed uses “anarchist” so frequently you would think he stopped reading his nativist history book at 1920). This is a potent example of how human rights abuses, when allowed to continue unchecked, create space for further repression affecting ever greater numbers of people, geographies, and issues.

Activists warning of the impact of criminalization and mass incarceration will see another tool in the toolbox of repression being used to hammer protestors in Portland: protecting private property from graffiti. That’s right. Graffiti. DHS has attempted to justify the tactics in Portland by pointing to dozens of episodes, including the defacement of federal property with graffiti. Proponents of the toxic “broken windows” policing strategy have long cast graffiti in the same terms reserved for gang affiliation and drug crime, justifying use of absurdly draconian felony charges against Black and brown communities. (For a powerful deep dive into graffiti and the impact of criminalization of urban artists check out the Scared Straight episode of the California Love podcast).

Not surprisingly, this deep-seated commitment to prioritize the protection of inanimate objects over the protection of people (especially Black and brown people) comes alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights’” pronouncement that the founding fathers sought to protect private property above nearly everything but religious freedom (for Christians). Check out The Advocates’ blog post on the “Commission” here.

What’s unfolding in Portland has rightfully horrified many people as an extraordinary crackdown on First Amendment protected activity and a terrifying disregard for Fourth Amendment guarantees against unlawful search and seizure. Moms decked out in protective goggles and dads armed with leaf blowers have turned out in the streets.

But let’s be honest. Border communities have faced daily human rights violations committed by an unaccountable and armed paramilitary force patrolling a militarized border. Black artists have faced serious jail time for engaging in artistic expression without the protection of a studio or gallery.

Human rights violations, like human rights themselves, are interconnected and interdependent. When the headlines of federal forces in our communities shift away from the Portland protests, remember that BIPOC communities will remain directly and deliberately in the crosshairs. Our outrage needs to follow.

How can we take action?

Demand accountability and disinvestment. CBP’s annual budget is more than $18 billion, with an additional $10.4 billion for ICE, nearly doubling since 2014. (Meanwhile, CBP recently was found to have misappropriated emergency funds earmarked for “consumables and medical care” to address deplorable detention conditions,” spending the money on ATVs, boats, motorcycles, and other unrelated expenses.)

Document and report abuses. In addition to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions each have special procedures for investigating human rights violations.

Stand in solidarity. Calls to #DefundPolice and #AbolishICE are more than hashtags. They represent insightful community-led movements to envision and achieve a new vision of safety at our border and in our communities that values the human rights of us all.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director and Director of the Research, Education, and Advocacy team at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Why Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Wrong

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently unveiled the draft report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (Commission). During the event at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (“a place intentionally chosen”, even if it is currently closed to the public), Secretary Pompeo gave a speech entitled “Unalienable Rights and the Securing of Freedom”.   

“And it’s important – it’s important for every American, for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights.  As you’ll see when you get a chance to read this report, the report emphasizes foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty.”   – Secretary Pompeo, July 16, 2020 

https://www.state.gov/unalienable-rights-and-the-securing-of-freedom/

When reading the draft report, it is important to remember that the Commission is a political body created by Secretary Pompeo to perform a very specific, political function: to create an official U.S. State Department document that reflects his own view of human rights, narrowing the definition to undermine fundamental principles of international human rights law and backtrack on U.S. foreign policy objectives that provide protections for historically marginalized groups, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQI community (human rights which Secretary Pompeo has called “ad hoc” rights). 

As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about the mandate and work to date of the Commission, as well as the potential harm that the Commission’s report may have on the United States’ fulfillment of its international human rights obligations.  When the Commission was created in July 2019, we joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a  public letter letter expressing concern about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup, and calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. Our concerns deepened as we observed the work of the Commission over the past year. In April 2020, we submitted comments directly to the Commission as it prepared its “advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters” to Secretary Pompeo, in keeping with its mandate.  

Now that the Commission has released its draft report and recommendations, we are alarmed that the report would narrow the scope of U.S. obligations under international human rights law and justify a ranking of rights that prioritize some rights, such as the right to freedom of religion, over others. We remain strongly concerned that the Commission’s draft report seeks to reinterpret the international human rights framework established over the past 70 years and limit widely recognized international human rights – particularly the rights of women, girls, and LGBTQI persons.  We are alarmed that the Commission suggests “other criteria” in its draft report to determine “whether and when a new claim of human right warrants support in U.S. foreign policy”. 

“In short, human rights are now misunderstood by many, manipulated by some, rejected by the world’s worst violators, and subject to ominous new threats.”  – Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights 

https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Draft-Report-of-the-Commission-on-Unalienable-Rights.pdf

The international human rights law framework already adequately defines the scope, content, and obligations of States to respect and promote human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the nine core human rights treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), codify widely recognized and accepted international human rights principles. These treaties are the product of decades of multilateral negotiations and represent an international consensus regarding the scope of human rights that bind the States that have opted into to ratifying them. In ratifying the ICCPR, as well as the treaties such as the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the United States has agreed to be bound by these multilateral human rights treaties.  

As the UDHR and subsequent binding human rights treaties make clear, human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. In other words, all human rights are equal in importance. Although the international human rights framework does recognize a distinction between derogable and non-derogable rights, it does not establish a hierarchy that allows for the exercise of some rights in ways that violate others. A prioritization of one right – freedom of religion or belief – over the enjoyment of other human rights would constitute a violation of the United States’ binding obligations under international human rights law.   

As an organization with United Nations ECOSOC Special Consultative Status, The Advocates regularly participates in international advocacy at the UN human rights mechanisms.  The Advocates also partners with human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the world. Many of our partners are currently experiencing threats, including threats of physical harm, due to a backlash against human rights. We are concerned that the Commission’s work sends a signal to the international community that the U.S. government views the international human rights framework as malleable and open to unilateral re-interpretation. The Commission’s willingness to question the basic foundations of the human rights framework risks emboldening populist and authoritarian regimes to further restrict human rights and justify repressive policies. Further, it is in the U.S. government’s national interest to make the promotion and protection of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Redefining and restricting human rights would limit the United States’ impact on the protection of human rights around the world. 

We do agree with the Commission’s Concluding Observation that, “A crucial way in which the United States promotes human rights abroad is by serving as an example of a rights-respecting society…” Unlike the work of the Commission thus far, however, a good faith review of the role of human rights in U.S. government policy would necessarily focus on how the U.S. could both improve its human rights record at home and promote greater protections for all human rights worldwide. Such a review would begin by reaffirming the U.S. government’s commitment to the international human rights framework as developed over the past 70 years and would recommend appropriate changes to Trump administration policy based on that framework. Along with others in the U.S. human rights movement, we have expressed our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, systemic racism, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.  

The Commission was instructed last year to provide Secretary of State Pompeo with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  We are better than we were when the UDHR was drafted, shortly after the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by State and non-State actors. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. 

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director at The Advocates for Human Rights  

Take Action!  The release of the draft report on July 16 began a two-week public comment period.  The Commission welcomes all submissions.  Please route them by July 29 to commission@state.gov and/or Designated Federal Officer Duncan Walker, who may be reached at walkerdh3@state.gov

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Justice for George Floyd: UN Human Rights Council Shines Spotlight on Systemic Racism and Police Brutality

The March session of the UN Human Rights Council was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But on Monday morning, that session resumed in Geneva with a dramatic opening. The President of the Human Rights Council gave the floor to Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso to the Council and coordinator of the body’s African Group:

Dieudonné W. Désiré Sougouri, Permanent Representative of Burkina Faso

“The tragic events of 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis in the US which led to the death of George Floyd led to protests throughout the world against injustice and police brutality that persons of African descent face on a daily basis in many regions of the world. The death of George Floyd unfortunately is not an isolated incident. Many other cases of persons of African descent having faced the same fate because of their origin and police violence exist. After the widespread indignation over this situation, it would be inconceivable that the Human Rights Council not deal with these questions which are very relevant in accordance with this mandate. This is why the African Group calls upon the Human Rights Council to organize an urgent debate on current violations of human rights that are based on racism, systemic racism, police brutality against persons of African descent, and violence against peaceful demonstrations, to call for an end to be put to these injustices.”  

Without objection, the Human Rights Council President then scheduled an unprecedented urgent debate for Wednesday, June 17: 

It was all over in less than 3 minutes, but it reflected countless hours of worldwide advocacy. The Advocates joined forces with over 600 organizations in 60 countries, in an effort endorsed by family members of George Floyd, Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, Breonna Taylor, and Michael Brown, to push the Council to dedicate a special session to racial justice in the United States 

What to expect? 

Tomorrow at 3:00 pm Geneva time (8:00 am Minneapolis time), the Council President will gavel open an urgent debate on “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality against people of African descent and violence against peaceful protests.” You can join me to watch the session livefollow The Advocates on Twitter for livetweetsor catch it later on the UN Web TV archivesThe debate may continue Thursday morning at 10:00 am Geneva time (3:00 am Minneapolis time). 

Like any debate at the Human Rights Council, you can expect a lot of polite formalities. The Council is a political body, with diplomats representing the interests of their own governments in the context of human rights. But you can also expect that every speaker will have watched the devastating and infuriating video of the police killing of George Floyd. Many of these high-level diplomats will say his name, as well as the names of other Black people who have been killed at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. It is possible that the Council will invite a member of Mr. Floyd’s family to address the body via video link.  

Monday’s strong words from Burkina Faso, calling for “an end to be put to these injustices,” may be a sign of what’s to come. It’s hard to gauge whether the debate will include any defense of the impunity that law enforcement officials in the United States usually enjoy. Since the United States resigned its seat on the Council in 2018, it has not attended Council sessions, but it is possible a U.S. delegate will attend the urgent debate and offer up some defense 

Accountability and impunity will be words to listen for. A core component of human rights is that when the government commits a human rights violation, the responsible parties must be held accountable. With qualified immunity as an entrenched judicial doctrine serving as a barrier to accountability, our system falls short.  

As the Council wraps up its March session, resolutions will be top of mind. Burkina Faso has prepared a resolution for the Council to consider later this week. It calls for:

An independent international commission of inquiry, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council to establish facts and circumstances related to the systemic racism, alleged violations of International Human Rights Law and abuses against Africans and of People of African Descent in the United States of America and other parts of the world recently affected,  by law enforcement agencies, especially those incidents that resulted in the deaths of Africans and of People of African Descent; with a view to bringing perpetrators to justice

Ordinarily, resolutions are weeks in the making, but because of the urgent debate, the Council will have the opportunity to move relatively quickly to take action—if it has the political will. We’ll be able to follow debate and voting on the resolution later this week and next Monday. 

If the resolution passes, this commission of inquiry would conduct an investigation and provide a series of reports to the Council at its sessions in September, March 2021, and June 2021. The Council would then have the opportunity to take additional steps based on the commission’s final report. Those steps could include renewing the commission’s mandate or taking other steps to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed against people of African descent in the United States. 

Our efforts 

As soon as the Council announced the urgent debate, we sprang into action. The critical actors in this debate will be the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, who will be able to vote on resolutions later this week, and again in early July. But all UN Member States, as well as observers such as the European Union, the Holy See, and the State of Palestine will also be able to take the floor during the debate.  

We identified UN Member States that are particularly vocal on issues of racism, racial discrimination, and minority rights, like Honduras and Sierra Leone, adding 20 countries to the original 47.  

After years of lobbying delegates to the Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review, we have a great set of contacts for most of the delegations in Geneva. So we reached out to familiar names, letting them know about the written statement we submitted to the Council last week on systemic racism in the United States.  

We had heard that U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes to try to make sure that the United States wasn’t singled out in Wednesday’s urgent debate. So we wrote to delegates to ask them to ensure that the debate would indeed shine a spotlight on the United States. More important, we asked them to commit to measures that would hold the United States accountable for these ongoing and systemic human rights violations. We urged them to support a resolution to mandate the creation of an independent, international accountability mechanism to document and investigate extrajudicial killings of unarmed Black people.  

Other UN bodies speak out 

Photo credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Professor E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, along with the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, is making a similar request that the Council establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States 

Last Friday, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination invoked its early warning and urgent action mechanism, called on the United States “to increase the oversight of police misconduct, and to ensure that each allegation of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials . . . is promptly and effectively investigated irrespective of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin and that the alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions.” The Committee also emphasized that “systemic and structural discrimination permeates State institutions and disproportionately promotes racial disparities against African Americans, notably in the enjoyment of the rights to equal treatment before tribunals, [and] security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm.” 

Next steps 

With decades of experience collaborating with partners around the world on UN advocacy, we know that sharp criticism from the United Nations is no quick fix. Efforts to dismantle systemic racism and end impunity require both external pressure from bodies like the Council and as well as grass roots mobilization from activists on the ground. Together, we can leverage that pressure from all directions to create a system that respects human rights.  

Follow developments on The Advocates’ Racial Justice Take Action page.  

Click here to learn more about how to advocate for human rights at the United Nations. 

Amy Bergquist is a Senior Staff Attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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Sarah Musgrave: Honoring our 2020 Volunteer Award Winners

Sarah Musgrave, Volunteer Award Recipient, honored at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner 2020

Sarah Musgrave is one of the five recipients of The Advocates for Human Rights Volunteer Awards. She is an active member in the Minneapolis community and committed to her volunteer work. Musgrave helps set the welcoming and supportive tone for The Advocates’ Minneapolis office.  As a volunteer receptionist, Musgrave is the first face clients see when walking through the door and she welcomes each person with open arms – making them feel noticed and comfortable. This past month, I had the opportunity to interview Musgrave about her volunteer work with The Advocates and learn about the impact that she has had within the world of human rights.

Musgrave has worked with The Advocates for eight years, volunteering in several capacities including as an assistant at The Advocates’ tent at the Minnesota State Fair, as a helper with mailings, and, most recently, as a part-time receptionist a few times a week. Musgrave began volunteering with The Advocates eight years ago after going to one of their film series that they hosted in a local library in Minneapolis. At the end of the film, Musgrave put her name on a sign-up sheet and found herself a part of a loving and supportive community that she has “great respect for.”

As an assistant working at The Advocates’ booth at the State Fair, Musgrave recalls an impactful moment with a visitor:  “I was once at the State Fair and someone with a Trump t-shirt was walking by the booth and I stopped him and asked him if he wanted to take a spin [referring to the Advocates’ spinning wheel in the booth that poses participants with questions] and he did and he answered a question and then I gave him a pin. And then I just saw him walking away with a “I love human rights” pin and …. You know it made me think about human rights. I had no idea where that [pin] was going to go.”

As a receptionist, Musgrave works a couple times a week welcoming people into the office, answering and transferring phone calls, and maintaining the United Nations Deadline Database. The database includes the dates that special rapporteurs examining poverty and violence against women will visit certain countries, as well as specific dates that committees meet at the United Nations. When I asked Musgrave what she liked most about working with The Advocates, she described to me the warmth that she feels working at the front desk: “Working at the front desk and just seeing people going through the asylum process and then they get it … just the joy they have of being able to work through it and have people working with them is just neat. These are people who don’t really have a whole lot of support and then to have people working behind them, totally on their behalf, to get them in the country and the appreciation they have for it…” Since Minnesota’s stay-at-home orders were put in place due to COVID-19, Musgrave has continued her receptionist work from home – updating the database and transferring calls.

When asked what motivates her to continue her volunteer work, Musgrave responded, “I really believe in the cause … everyone should have the opportunity to progress.” She was sure to mention the hopeful atmosphere that exists within the organization: “Everyone is just so positive. It is just a really positive place to be.”  She began to talk about how much she respects and admires the organization and the way they are able to bring volunteers in from all walks of life. “They are very welcoming! Everyone has different talents and they are willing to work with you to find something that benefits both parties.” For Musgrave, she feels as though she has benefited from volunteering in a number of ways, including being able to have the “great opportunity to explore things within the human rights community.” I asked her what keeps her volunteering with The Advocates and she quickly answered by saying, “I just really enjoy doing it… I don’t know why I would give up something I enjoy doing… people thank me for doing this, but I really enjoy doing this – it’s not like I am sacrificing a whole lot…”

In addition to working with The Advocates, Musgrave is an advocate for the environment and works closely with the Sierra Club and other climate change related organizations. In her free time, she enjoys biking in nature and exploring her surroundings. While Musgrave expresses deep gratitude for the work of The Advocates, it is important to note that The Advocates expresses a similar gratitude for her presence and impact on the organization. Thank you, Sarah, for all of the work that you do. Your positiveness is infectious and your passion for volunteering is inspiring. It is with great pleasure that The Advocates presents to you a 2020 Volunteer Award.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Amano Dube: Honoring Our 2020 Volunteer Award Recipients

Amano Dube, The Advocates For Human Rights Volunteer Award Recipient

Amano Dube, a leader in the Minneapolis community, is one of five recipients receiving The Advocates for Human Rights Volunteer Award. Dube is the Director of Public Sector Programs at Pillsbury United Communities’ Brian Coyle Center, a social service center that supports the local immigrant community. Prior to working at the Center, Dube was the Executive Director of the Oromo Community of Minnesota, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of the Oromo in Minnesota. For the last five years, Dube has volunteered with The Advocates, connecting immigrants and refugees who are seeking asylum with volunteer attorneys and helping to interpret asylees’ testimonies. This past month, I had the opportunity to speak with Dube about his work with The Advocates and to learn about the impact he has made in his community.

Dube, an asylee from the Oromo community in Ethiopia, came to the United States in 1994:

“Knowing how I came to this country, what kind of help I got – by the way, when I came to this country, I did not have a language program interpreting for me – [ motivated me to help others] … I have seen so many clients who come to this country with nothing in terms of education and they fully rely on somebody who is bilingual and who speaks their language and understands English.”

Dube has worked for over twenty years with community organizations connecting refugees and immigrants to assistance, including to asylum help. “I stepped up to bridge that gap and there are people that rely on me as a person who knows them and knows the atrocities in their country.”

Dube learned about The Advocates while working at the Oromo Community of Minnesota trying to connect members of the community with necessary resources. During this process, Dube discovered The Advocates and the work that they do in helping asylees. As a volunteer with The Advocates, Dube connects those that come to him for asylum help with The Advocates’ services. “From the day they come to me, I first call The Advocates for Human Rights. I connect that client with staff there so that they can schedule interviews and appointments… and then my role during this time is basically helping with language interpretation and document interpretation sometimes.” 

When I asked Dube to describe an impactful moment that he had while volunteering with The Advocates, he took a moment to think and then began to tell me about the experiences of a young Oromo adult with medical complications from Ethiopia who sought asylum. “I received a call from the Mayo Clinic about somebody who came to the country because of a traumatic injury, who was also a victim of political prosecution. He had a disease that partially paralyzed his body.” The man was sick, could not speak English, did not know the country, and could no longer afford treatment. Dube called the man to see what he could do to help. The next day, Dube drove an hour and a half to visit the young man at the Mayo Clinic. “I saw him in the hospital, and he said ‘get me out of here. Do whatever you can do for me.’ He was really desperate to meet someone who could understand him and comfort him.” Dube then remembered the work of The Advocates and believed that this young Oromo man was the type of person that could benefit from their help in the asylum process. “So, I decided to bring him to my home and give him a bedroom. My wife and I decided that if God can help him and the American system can help him, then we will do our part by helping to feed him and dress him.” Two days later, Dube called The Advocates and explained the situation and they scheduled an interview for the man. “I drove him to The Advocates’ office. They interviewed him, they took his case, asylum was filed, and he was connected to the Center for Victims of Torture which got him insurance – which he needed for treatment. He then got the asylum and got the most needed treatment.” Dube went silent for a moment. He continued, “now he has gone back to college, majored in micro information systems and accounting, he got married, and he is a husband now living right here close to us.” Dube paused again and then added “and that, I would say, is the most memorable part of the work that The Advocates do. They completely turn around the life of people.”

After clients seek asylum, Dube’s work does not end. Through his work at the Brian Coyle Center, he helps asylees to obtain housing, find jobs, and receive health care. “All of this we do behind the scenes,” he told me: “We live in the community we know what they need … We take this as our responsibility. I am not doing this for The Advocates, I am not doing this for recognition … I do it because it is my role as an Oromo to help another Oromo or Ethiopian. Because I know the language, I am better positioned to help them and to connect them with systems including The Advocates.”

Thank you, Amano. You are a kind, hardworking, and passionate advocate. You lead by example and your work inspires others to become better advocates for social change. It is with great honor that The Advocates for Human Rights presents to you a 2020 Volunteer Award.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Kathy Lenzmeier: Honoring the First Recipient of the Marlene Kayser Volunteer Award

Kathy Lenzmeier, The Advocates’ Marlene Kayser Volunteer Award Recipient

Kathy Lenzmeier, a longtime volunteer and former board member of The Advocates for Human Rights, is the first recipient of the Marlene Kayser Volunteer Award. The award was created as a legacy to Marlene and honors individuals who represent the gold standard of excellence in volunteerism, philanthropy, and advocacy.

For the past decade, Lenzmeier has been devoted to the mission of The Advocates and her commitment is evident through the impact she has had locally and internationally. Lenzmeier is currently retired from her work in the commercial insurance industry and, today, devotes a great deal of time and energy to working with The Advocates in protecting human rights. This month I had the opportunity to speak with Lenzmeier about her work with The Advocates and was amazed by her long-term devotion to serving her local community and its organizations.

Ten years ago, Lenzmeier became involved with The Advocates through their project supporting the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) in Nepal. Lenzmeier became interested in Nepal when trekking in the mountains with a friend and so when she saw that The Advocates was involved with a school in the Kathmandu Valley, she immediately wanted to help. The Advocates partners with Educate the Children-Nepal to provide impoverished Nepali children in the Kathmandu Valley with a free education, daily meals, and health care check-ups. Lenzmeier first visited the SPCS in 2012 and has visited four more times since. It was a “very rewarding experience,” Lenzmeier said when describing the positive outcome of her volunteer work there: equal access to education regardless of background, gender parity, and a continued partnership with the school. During her trips to Nepal with The Advocates, Lenzmeier interviewed school leadership, teachers, and students about their experiences at the school and was able to spend time with community members. Lenzmeier’s most recent visit to the school was last fall: “One highlight was being able to see the alumni who came back to visit. There was a nurse, someone working in hotel management, an engineer and a teacher.” She added that she was moved by the fact that “many of these alums were traveling for their jobs to other countries as professionals rather than laborers.” Lenzmeier relayed to me that “today, the school has around 340 students enrolled… and that it only costs $250 to educate one child.”

In addition to her work on the Nepal project, Lenzmeier served on The Advocates’ Board of Directors for nine years, serving on the Development Committee and the Executive Committee. Kathy is currently chairing a committee focused on increasing the sustainability of the organization and the reach of its work. Beyond her work with The Advocates, Lenzmeier also contributes her time to multiple other Minneapolis-based organizations including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and active in the local art scene.

Before ending the interview, I asked Lenzmeier if she had a favorite part about volunteering with The Advocates. She immediately responded that her favorite part of volunteering was the chance to work with the staff. “When I was on the board … I was most impressed by the staff – there isn’t turn over, they are so committed, they are so qualified.”  She then added that she admires “how careful [The Advocates are] with their money. How they can stretch a dollar so far in defending human rights throughout the world. And doing it locally, nationally, and internationally – it is very impressive.” While Lenzmeier admires the staff and the work done at The Advocates, The Advocates are beyond grateful to her and for her work.  

Thank you, Kathy, for all of the work that you do with The Advocates and in your community. The Advocates are excited to present to you the Marlene Kayser Volunteer Award for your continued commitment to human rights and social impact.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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Joan Kuriansky: Celebrating the Work of Our Volunteers

Joan Kuriansky, The Advocates For Human Rights Volunteer Award Recipient

The work done by The Advocates for Human Rights is fueled by its team of talented volunteers. One of these volunteers is Joan Kuriansky, a Washington D.C.­–based lawyer, with a strong commitment to women’s rights work, domestic violence issues, and human rights advocacy. Kuriansky began volunteering with The Advocates in the late 1990s and, ever since, has been a consistent volunteer. I recently had the chance to speak with Kuriansky about her career, including her work with The Advocates.

Moments into the interview, Kuriansky’s passion for human rights advocacy became evident as she excitedly explained to me about some of her past jobs and projects. “It is a lot of fun for me to do this work. I have been involved, especially with the issue of domestic violence, since 1978,” she told me. Kuriansky was the co-founder of a battered women’s program in DC, My Sister’s Place, she ran a legal center in Philadelphia protecting domestic violence victims, and she worked on the passage of the Violence Against Women Act.

Throughout her time volunteering for The Advocates, Kuriansky has worked on a number of different projects. Her first project was in Ukraine providing advocates with domestic violence training. Kuriansky then conducted an in-depth study in Armenia related to domestic violence issues. The report consisted of interviews with attorneys, prosecutors, advocates, and government officials. “And that was my introduction to the work of The Advocates. Already, I was impressed with the way they structured their training, the relationships they were forming, and the breadth of the work,” Kuriansky told me during our interview. Her report was later used to inform future advocacy work of The Advocates in Armenia.

One of Kuriansky’s favorite parts of volunteering with The Advocates is being a part of their annual United Nations Study-Advocacy trip to Geneva. Since 2016, Kuriansky has been an integral member of The Advocates team of volunteers that lobbies at the United Nations. She has co-facilitated panel discussions, delivered a short presentation to the full body of the Human Rights Commission, sat in on country hearings, and met with special rapporteurs and individual delegates from around the world. Kuriansky credits The Advocates for the impact that she has been able to have in Geneva:

“It was because of the extraordinary preparation of The Advocates’ staff that we, as volunteers, could be useful and, I hope, effective. It would not have been possible for us to have had the impact that we did, if we did not have the very well-developed materials and instructions about how to go forward with meeting with these different delegates.”

She noted that many of the team’s recommendations have been incorporated into official comments to various countries under review and some countries have even directly implemented their recommendations:

“In one instance we saw a country increase its funding for domestic violence programs. We also saw that certain laws were changed in keeping with the recommendations. In another instance, moving from law to administration, we saw where a country reorganized its response to domestic violence and the role that the different members of the legal community would play in that regard.”

Currently, Kuriansky is working with The Advocates on various shadow reports, including one on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on domestic violence. Kuriansky’s shadow report is particularly focused on the D.C. metropolitan area.

When I asked Kuriansky why she chooses to volunteer to with The Advocates, her answer was simple. She told me that she enjoyed the direct application of the work. She praised The Advocates’ advocacy skills:

“One of the great aspects of The Advocates in my mind, is their ability to present information in a way that is compelling, raises hard issue that could otherwise be responded to very defensively by a country but, because of the methodology and on the ground support, the recommendations that come from The Advocates … are taken very seriously and sometimes you don’t find that is the case if a country believes that the outside groups, which are coming in to “criticize” them, are not very respectful of the people in it.”

Kuriansky is a model volunteer – longstanding, enthusiastic, dedicated, passionate, and knowledgeable – and is a role model for many. Just as Kuriansky credits The Advocates with being effective change makers, The Advocates credit her with helping to actualize that change.

By Jenna Schulman, University of Pennsylvania sophomore and active volunteer for The Advocates For Human Rights.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

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This is No Ordinary Mother’s Day

Sarah Brenes with her mother, a nurse, on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”

This is my first Mother’s Day without my mama. I am reminded of her every day, as I follow the news about healthcare professionals on the frontline of caring for the sick and neighbors making masks. My mom was a nurse and knew how to sew—both skills have proven essential during this current pandemic. I went into law, not healthcare, and can barely sew a button. Like many working mothers, I try to have patience with myself during these unusual times, as it feels as if the Coronavirus took the seesaw that is work/life balance and threw it up into a windstorm. I keep reminding myself that so long as we are safe and healthy at home, I just need to hold on tight and ride out the storm. For many of the mothers we serve as part of our work at The Advocates for Human Rights serving asylum seekers, the storm of upheaval is much greater before things return to normal. This Mother’s Day, I pause to acknowledge the extraordinary resilience that many of our clients are required to demonstrate in order to return to, or perhaps begin, the ordinary task of motherhood.

I recall my first asylum interview with a client when I returned to work after giving birth to my daughter, Cecilia.

Sarah’s daughter, Cecilia, dancing in a dress sewn by her mother and grandmother

The client was a prominent journalist in her home country. She had an accomplished career covering all topics, including politics. Her work covering corrupt practices heading up to the country’s presidential elections eventually resulted in her being targeted and raped by government officials for reporting on its corrupt acts. She learned she was pregnant after arriving in the U.S. — her son just a few months older than my daughter.  

I was raised in a white middle-class family in the 1980’s. My mom was a daughter of the 50’s. As a high schooler, the only extracurricular my mom could participate in was cheerleading. Less than 10% of women had college degrees by the time she started nursing school. I was raised with new doors opened under Title IX and my mom was committed to enrolling me in every sport, musical activity and academic extracurricular that she could. I went on to graduate college and earn my law degree, when women were approaching 50% of law graduates (there is still a long way to go on equality in the profession, but that is for another blog). I managed to start a family while in law school and was in step with many of my peers, nimbly managing work and home life. My life experience could not be more different from my client’s, yet we were connected by our womanhood, our motherhood and our desire to pursue a meaningful career.

I remember preparing the client for her interview.  Having the privilege of not knowing what it was like to be violated by government officials, I did not know how she managed to carry the weight of that horror alongside her unborn child, or welcome this new innocent life into the world, having come from one of the darkest places of humanity.

In unlawyer-like fashion, I broke down during my closing statement. The pain and suffering this client endured for her allegedly political acts as a journalist were undeniable. It was a slam dunk, as far as the legal case was concerned. Yet I could not hold back tears as I pleaded that the officer grant her case swiftly, “so that she can know that she is safe here and can just focus on being a mom.”

In 2019, we saw an unprecedented number of pregnant women come to The Advocates for help. Some fled in order to protect their unborn daughters from female genital mutilation (FGM). Others were pregnant from rape, by a partner, a government official or a gang member who ordered her to visit him for conjugal visits. Other mothers fled alone, leaving children behind, to be reared by family or friends, or whom they would struggle to remain connected with, mothering from afar.  

International Human Rights Law as it relates to refugees is premised on the simple goal of protecting families and individuals who face life-threatening harm to the point it is no longer safe to remain in their home country. Over the years, the U.S. has complicated the rules to limit those protections and access to the process to seek it.

We have jailed mothers with their children, separated moms from their babies, added to the checklist of en route requirements before seeking protection in the United States and most recently moved and then closed the door where mothers can ask lady liberty for protection for themselves and their families. We have turned on mother’s who are beaten and limited the definition of “family” in pursuit of limiting who can find safety in the U.S. when there was none at home.

All of this has made extraordinary the work of ordinary attorneys who volunteer with us to help the over 600 asylum seekers we provide free legal services to each year.  

Things are not quite normal for anyone these days, but this Mother’s Day I am safe at home…with my family. For most clients, this most simple wish is what they hope to come true when they come in to seek our help. To be safe; to have a place to call home; to be with your family–these most basic human rights are what drive us to keep coming to work, even if we have to stay home.   

Masks sewn by Sarah’s neighbors, made from Sarah’s mom’s quilt fabrics

If you are an ordinary attorney who wants to do extraordinary work, join our volunteer team.  If you speak another language, join our volunteer interpreter network.  If you want to help us make mother’s day an ordinary celebration for our clients, donate to support our work.

By Sarah Brenes, Director of the Refugee & Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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Remaining the North Star During A Pandemic

The Advocates calls on the State of Minnesota to lead in supporting communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Federal Government has provided crucial assistance to some families, but that legislation excludes many members of our communities.  For example, the Federal CARES Act restricts stimulus funds from many mixed-status families; unemployment benefits are not available for many self-employed or undocumented workers; and additional federal benefits have gaps, such as students who cannot file for themselves but also may not be counted as dependents by their families.  These gaps place individuals in vulnerable positions where they may be forced to remain in abusive or exploitative relationships or employment situations and mean that Minnesotans will become homeless due the pandemic, prolonging its consequences.  As a leader working to reduce violence against women and human trafficking, The Advocates knows all too well the multiplier effects economic vulnerabilities have on our communities.  Minnesota can only thrive if we are all thriving.  COVID-19 is a public health emergency that does not discriminate.  Therefore, our emergency funding and legislation must not discriminate either.   

Luckily, several important bills have been introduced that would ensure Minnesotans work together to get through this crisis together.  We call on our leaders in the Minnesota legislature to pass the following bills and continue to guarantee that we remain the North Star that promotes community.   

Please call or write your legislators and encourage them to support SF 4540/HF 4611 on Emergency Community Relief Grants and SF 4495/HF 4541 on Protection from Eviction and Foreclosure

SF 4540 and HF 4611, which would provide $50 million for emergency community relief grants that would allow eligible nonprofit organizations to make grants to individuals experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.  Individuals would be eligible for up to $1,500 if they are not eligible to receive other state or federal emergency relief.  These bills will support those who cannot receive unemployment benefits such as self-employed or non-citizen individuals; those who would not receive unemployment benefits at a rate that is commensurate with their earnings, such as tipped employees whose earnings do not accurately reflect income; and individuals such as adult dependents, minor or college-aged dependents, or others who were not required to file taxes for the past two years, and adults who are elderly or disabled but are not receiving Social Security benefits.  The grants would be specifically targeted to pay for food, emergency household items, rent support, utility bills, and other similar expenses

SF 4495 and HF 4541, which provide protection from eviction or foreclosure during a public health emergency, and which provide funding to help cover housing expenses due to COVID-19.  These bills not only protect homeowners or renters without status and mixed-status households, but also reduce risk of trafficking and other harms that might occur should someone be forced to either remain in dangerous situations/relationships to meet rent/mortgage payments or face homelessness where they are more likely to become victims of crimes. The bill also ensures security in the housing market by reducing foreclosures and maintaining homeownership by Minnesotans.  To be eligible for funding, applicants must: (1) have a public-health-related emergency; (2) have a specific housing-related payment due March 1, 2020, or later, that is past due; (3) be unable to pay the money owed because of the public health emergency; and (4) be a household, with a current gross income under 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines at the time of application or as averaged over the previous 12 months, whichever is lower. 

By Lindsey Greising, Staff Attorney for The Advocates for Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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Remote Volunteers Help NGOs Engage with the United Nations

Civil society organizations play a crucial role in human rights monitoring at the United Nations. The mission of the United Nations – to monitor, protect, and advance human rights around the world – is best carried out when civil society actively participates. Non-governmental organizations, activists, and academics provide valuable information about human rights violations that governments miss or cover up. For instance, they can submit written information in the form of a “shadow” or “alternative” report. These reports give activists an opportunity to share local human rights violations directly with the international community and, ultimately, to change laws and policies.

While the United Nations welcomes civil society participation, the opportunities and deadlines for participation are not so easy to track down. Each mechanism has a different system, which is why we need volunteers to become experts on each one and compile the information into one easy-to-use database.

Flag of the United Nations

Thanks to a team of nine paralegal volunteers and twelve other remote volunteers, The Advocates facilitates civil society engagement with United Nations and Regional Human Rights mechanisms through an online deadline database. The database is searchable by country and provides up-to-date, accurate information about reporting opportunities all in one place. Without this team of volunteers, non-governmental organizations may be left in the dark about opportunities to engage with the United Nations.

As someone who personally works with our volunteers on a regular basis, I can attest to their enthusiasm and discipline. I am always impressed with how eager they are to know all the ins and outs of the United Nations monitoring process, even though they don’t need to know all the specifics for this work. It is a steep learning curve, yet they are always up to the challenge. I also appreciate how responsive they are to my many emails about updating the database when unexpected changes arise.

The global pandemic has not stopped them from continuing their work, even when many of their own workloads have increased. One volunteer recently told me she was going to check on the deadlines weekly as opposed to bi-weekly, just so she could make sure she caught all the updates due to COVID-19. Many other volunteers worked to quickly turn around new deadlines that changed due to COVID-19 so that our international partners at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty could stay up to date.

When I asked our volunteers why they took on this work, here is how they responded. I hope you can see for yourself that something as simple as a database can have a big impact.

“The Advocates for Human Rights does important work and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to contribute my time to such a cause.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I have been overwhelmed by the changes in policy toward immigrants and anyone in the world really who needs help. The first work I did for Advocates was on an asylum case. Even though we were not successful, the appreciation shown to me, by the wife and children of the man who was eventually deported, made me realize that I needed desperately to fill a hole in my life. When our pro bono director reached out to me on entering deadlines for treaty bodies, I jumped at the opportunity.  There are still many things out there that make me sad, but doing this work, as minimal as it is, helps fill the “hole”.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“I took it on because it sounded terribly interesting and I wanted to contribute (albeit in a VERY small way) to making the world (not just my little suburban corner of it) a better place. I like to think that it enables someone (individuals or groups) to make a case to protect and improve the lives of those who cannot (or are not able) to do so themselves.” – Paralegal Volunteer

“Something that has always been important to me, is to ensure I put aside time to give back to the community, and beyond. Advocating for human rights is so crucial to promote equality within the community, society and all over the world. For me, volunteering my time to The Advocates of Human Rights, and having any part in facilitating their mission, is a real honor.” – Paralegal Volunteer

By Elizabeth Lacy, Program Assistant for Women’s Human Rights and International Justice Programs at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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A Volunteer Reflects

Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota Law Student and WATCH volunteer

Going into a courtroom for the first time compared to re-entering a courtroom after a semester of law school are wildly different experiences. My first time in the courtroom was with WATCH, a court monitoring and judicial policy initiative of The Advocates For Human Rights, when I was 18. I was overwhelmed, excited, and confused but eager to learn. The cases moved so fast and it felt like the lawyers and judges were speaking in a foreign language. The lawyers’ clients, if present, seemed just as confused as me. It was not how I had imagined court at all. Similar to many Americans who have never been in courtroom, I was picturing a scene similar to television, a lawyer screaming “this court is out of order!” at the judge after a passionate argument. However, the reality within a courtroom is a more procedural process. Lawyers coming in and out stating what they needed from the judge and leaving, the judge rapidly shuffling through papers, and the occasional defendant coming out in handcuffs. I left the courthouse that day inspired and excited to understand the inner workings of the process. I wanted to be a part of it all. 

Fast forward to when I was 21 years old, re-entering a courtroom for the first time after a semester of law school. Things made sense and the process felt familiar and easy. While the lawyers’ arguments were not the passionate, powerful arguments you see on television, I could understand how and why they were making arguments for their clients. I found excitement in the little things that I hadn’t seen or noticed before. Filing motions, writing briefs, and dealing with the procedural issues is necessary work in order to win a case. In law school, especially during your first year, there is a disconnect between what we are learning and how it is applied in practice. WATCH has provided me confidence in a courtroom and in front of a judge that many other students may not yet have. Volunteering for WATCH allows me to bridge the gap between my legal education in the classroom and how this information I am learning is put into practice in the courtroom. 

By Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota law student and WATCH volunteer

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

 

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Supreme Court’s Ramos Decision Brings Attention to the Relevance of International Human Rights Standards in Death Penalty Cases

U.S. Supreme Court (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that allow a jury to convict someone of a crime without reaching a unanimous verdict. Ramos v. Louisiana brings attention to the importance of aligning death penalty practices in the United States with international human rights standards. The Advocates for Human Rights, as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. But as a step toward abolition, it is important to examine the human rights standards that apply when a state allows the death penalty. 

At first glance, Ramos might seem entirely irrelevant to international human rights law or the death penalty. The provisions in Oregon and Louisiana law that the Court struck down both had exceptions: for a defendant to be sentenced to death, the jury must decide the person’s guilt unanimously.  

Moreover, the Court’s decision in Ramos is based on the Sixth Amendment right to a “trial by an impartial jury.” Trial by jury is just one of several ways to determine whether a person accused of a crime is guilty, and international human rights standards do not dictate that courts must use a jury to determine a person’s guilt. Article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for example, calls for “a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Some countries ensure this right with a jury as finder of fact, while others task a judge to make factual determinations, and still others use a hybrid system with a professional judge alongside lay judges or jurors finding facts together. 

But the unanimity exceptions for capital cases in Oregon and Louisiana law bring to mind the importance of international human rights standards that apply to the death penalty. 

Non-unanimous jury verdicts in capital cases violate the United Nations’ minimum safeguards applicable in death penalty cases. These safeguards, adopted in 1984, say that a person may be sentenced to death “only when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts.” If twelve jurors hear all the evidence in a case and, even after prolonged deliberations, one or two of those jurors do not think the defendant is guilty, then there must be a persuasive “alternative explanation of the facts.”  

These safeguards are consistent with one of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty—the risk of wrongful convictions. Exonerees from organizations like Witness to Innocence provide powerful testimonies that the criminal justice system can reach unjust results. Requiring a unanimous jury doesn’t ensure that the jury will reach a correct decision. Indeed, the 167 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1972 were likely all found guilty by unanimous juries. But the 1984 safeguards emphasize that when a person’s life is on the line, the justice system must ensure that the legal process “gives all possible safeguards to ensure a fair trial.” 

Last year, the U.N. Human Rights Committee published a general comment relevant to the death penalty. (The Advocates made two written submissions to the Committee as it drafted the comment.) The Committee noted that violation of the fair trial rights in Article 14 of the ICCPR can render a death sentence arbitrary, in violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR. The Committee called on State Parties to the ICCPR to “take all feasible measures in order to avoid wrongful convictions in death penalty cases, to review procedural barriers to reconsideration of convictions and to re-examine past convictions on the basis of new evidence.” 

A unanimous jury requirement is just one component of the government’s obligation to avoid wrongful convictions. Another important component is access to competent legal representation. You’ll read more about that topic on this blog later this year. The theme for the 2020 World Day Against the Death Penalty—an event marked every year on October 10—is Access to Counsel: A Matter of Life or Death.  

Click here to learn more about The Advocates work against the death penalty worldwide. 

By Amy Bergquist, Senior Staff Attorney in The Advocates’ International Justice Program. She represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, where she is one of the Coalition’s vice presidents. 

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Volunteers Fight The Fight; Families Reunite

A client of The Advocates For Human Rights reunited with her children after 7 years.

During this time of coronavirus, we are bombarded with news of things going wrong, with too many stories of loved ones passing away alone, retirement savings lost, and doctors feeling overwhelmed without the resources they need.

As immigration lawyers, we have a front row seat to the assaults on the rights of marginalized people when society is dealt a blow. Every day we field calls from detained immigrants whose health conditions make them extremely vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. We’re learning of large employers endangering their immigrant workers by forcing them to stay on the job even when numbers of ill coworkers climb into the hundreds., Anxious clients and volunteers are asking what will happen to them now that Trump says he’s going to “end immigration”.

This pandemic has unquestionably had an impact on us all. A recent column in The New York Times highlighted a Kaiser Family Foundation poll which found that nearly half of all Americans — 45 percent — feel that the coronavirus has negatively affected their mental health.

I would be lying if I said I have not often felt dispirited by the news and the challenges facing the communities we serve. However, I have a daily dose of motivation to keep me running full speed ahead: the amazing volunteer attorneys, interpreters, and paralegals, who continue to fight tirelessly for our clients’ rights and safety. Our volunteers live and work nationwide, and their practices range from large firm to solo. They handle every type of case, from filing asylum applications with USCIS to fighting for bonds for detained immigrants.

These are not people with endless time on their hands. I often hear kids playing in the background on calls with volunteers. Yesterday I got a call from a volunteer right after her work day wrapped up. She informed me she had seven minutes to ask her questions because that was how long her child was allowed to play on his iPad. We had a very efficient seven-minute call. Almost daily, I receive late-night emails from busy attorneys ensuring their pro bono clients receive timely responses to their questions. These attorneys do not come to this advocacy work feeling they know everything (or anything) about asylum law; most do not have immigration law backgrounds. They learn “on the job,” supported by The Advocates’ training and mentorship. They ask questions, they research, and they do excellent work representing their clients.

Legal representation matters, but immigrants facing deportation in Minnesota have a less than 50 percent chance of getting counsel. We know that 98.5 percent of families appearing without a lawyer were ordered deported. In contrast, when an attorney represented these families, the immigration judge allowed almost a quarter to stay in the country. The Advocates’ attorneys have won close to 70 percent of their cases. It is only because these dedicated people do the daily, often unglamorous, and nearly always difficult work of ensuring access to justice that many individuals, families, and children have a chance to rebuild their lives after fleeing with nothing.

It is clear that this advocacy work is essential to the safety of asylum seekers. But does it help volunteers too? The author of The New York Times column cited not only the findings by the Kaiser Family Foundation; she also reminded us that those who find ways to make meaning and create hope are most able to experience resilience in times of crisis like this one.

I know from experience that it not easy to fight for justice as the pandemic rages. I was curious how our volunteers are staying motivated, so I asked them to tell us why they’re volunteering. I hope you see in these reflections the kind of world you want to see.

“I volunteer for The Advocates to honor the humanity of others.” – small firm attorney

“Every day we represent our asylum clients we help them take another step toward freedom and reunification with their families. One of the primary reasons I went to law school was to continue being a ‘Man for Others,’ a phrase instilled in me at my Jesuit high school. Working with The Advocates and wonderful clients carries on that tradition and hopefully inspires others to join our team.” – mid-sized firm attorney

“The reason I volunteered was to have an opportunity to help our immigrant friends get out of ICE detention – which I believe is a serious human rights abuse against our fellow human beings.  I have been so blessed in my life by the love I have been given by family and friends that I believe it is imperative for me to share this love with others and help them find a more peaceful and meaningful life.” – retired attorney

“There is such a huge need for legal representation by asylum seekers living in Greater Minnesota, and The Advocates for Human Rights is uniquely positioned to provide state-wide assistance. I firmly believe that no matter where an individual came from or where in the U.S. they live now, everyone is entitled a supportive advocate network to help them find a more uplifting path.” – solo attorney  

“Given the unprecedented times we are living in, and the state of crisis, it was so rewarding to find out that USCIS has just granted our pro bono client’s application for Special Immigration Juvenile Status!” –large firm attorney

“There is nothing like getting an asylum win!” – small firm attorney

 “A few years ago I was looking to volunteer in a way that would make a significant difference in individual people’s lives. I have always worked in public policy and never represented clients. I wanted that experience, that relationship with a client in a deeply meaningful way. I attended an Advocates training and left with a domestic violence case three years ago. Working with traumatized women can be troubling and saddening, however it is also gratifying and meaningful. My asylum work gives me perspective in my own life. My life has been enriched by learning of my clients’ lives and advocating for them. In early March of this year, my first client’s children came to the U.S. to live with her. There is no experience quite like being at an airport when a mother is reunited with her young children after years long separation! And it fuels me to keep on volunteering and trying to make a positive impact on other people’s lives.” – public policy attorney

“I have been increasingly distressed by the xenophobia and the racism that has surrounded the immigration discussion, and I decided then and there to volunteer [when our advocacy director Michele Garnett McKenzie asked for volunteers at a community event]. I’ve thought about it for years, but was hesitant because my legal practice was in tax and estate planning (I’m now retired). This has been an amazing opportunity to live out my values. I feel grateful for the support I’ve received from seasoned attorneys at The Advocates as I have worked on my very first asylum case.” – retired attorney

And, lastly, a wonderful call to action from one of our brilliant immigration attorney mentors:

“I continue to volunteer because I know that now, more than ever, one hour of my time can potentially change someone’s life. I’ve seen the quote, “strong alone, unstoppable together”, and that’s how I feel when I volunteer alongside other incredible attorneys.” – small firm attorney  

Our volunteers remind me that through the many challenges we face with this administration, and especially during this pandemic, we are still winning many of the fights. Perhaps most importantly, their stories remind me that the kind of world I want to see, a world where the justice one gets doesn’t depend on the girth of one’s wallet, is being built day by day, case by case, fight by fight, right here and right now, by asylum seekers and their advocates. Want to join this inspiring community? Visit our website or email Alison at agriffith@advrights.org.


By Alison Griffith, Staff Attorney for the Refugee and Immigration Program at The Advocates For Human Rights

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

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Asylum Seekers Continue to Push for Change Abroad

Protesters carry a Burundian flag in Brujumbura, Burundi. Photo: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

As a newly-initiated intern in The Advocates for Human Rights’ International Justice Program, I was unsure what to expect when I walked into my first official team meeting in May 2019. Despite this uncertainty, I quickly learned that me and my intern team’s responsibilities would not follow the traditional Devil Wears Prada-esque intern tropes of office coffee runs and administrative purgatory. Instead, much of our role would involve conducting research for UN shadow reports by delving into former and current asylum cases. 

My team’s first major project of the summer involved writing a client-based report on the human rights situation in Burundi to submit to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi. After President Nkurunziza announced that he would be running for a third term in April of 2015, a violation of Burundi’s constitutionally-mandated two-term limit, Burundians took to the streets in protest. Many were kidnapped, detained, or killed. One failed coup attempt and four years later, Burundians today continue to live in fear of speaking out, lest they meet a similar fate. And after Burundi’s government forced the UN to shut down its local office in 2019, fact-finding has proven increasingly difficult.

As an advocacy organization that also provides pro-bono legal representation to asylum seekers through its Refugee and Immigration Program, The Advocates for Human Rights routinely uses firsthand information from former and current clients in advocacy reports (examples of this can be found here, here, and here). Accounts from asylum seekers who have directly witnessed and survived human rights violations can help NGOs identify patterns of abuse, identify bad-faith actors, and ultimately push for accountability on the international stage. 

Full disclosure: I had heard nothing of the situation in Burundi before joining The Advocates. So when my supervisors informed me and my fellow International Justice interns of our project, I began gathering information: reading articles, watching videos, and sifting through The Advocates’ asylum case files from Burundi. Asking individuals to recount their experiences and, in some cases, relive their trauma, requires sensitivity, awareness, and humility. My fellow International Justice interns and I spent a week drafting an interview protocol complete with questions and disclaimers. After much deliberation, the questions we ultimately decided on centered specific incidents and specific perpetrators in the aim of identifying the types of abuse and distinguishing state actors from non-state actors. In pushing for accountability through international human rights law, the difference between the two was significant.

Due to the nature of asylum law in the US, all asylum cases must have some aspects in common. Gaining asylum requires a well-founded fear of persecution in the home country, and requires that the persecution be on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion. The majority of the Burundians we interviewed experienced persecution on the nexus of political opinion, race, or social group.

Yet the practice of interviewing asylum seekers is not quite so formulaic.

The process began with raking through a database to find relevant case files–”relevant” included individuals who had fled from Burundi sometime around or after 2015, since the COI’s charge only concerned conditions in Burundi after the 2015 attempted coup. After identifying clients to contact, we first sent an introductory email explaining the charge of the COI and the request for an interview, and then we called. Many numbers had gone out of service, and just as many sent us straight to voicemail. We quickly learned the importance of persistence and of follow-up. Eventually, individuals began to pick up, and as we pitched our requests for interviews, we were met with a brave and resounding chorus of ‘yes’ from former Burundians. 

Your confidentiality and safety are of utmost importance to us. The Commission of Inquiry has promised to do everything in its power to protect the victims and witnesses included in this report. Every telephone conversation began with the same reassurance. Even with individuals who had successfully sought asylum, the threat of retribution against family or friends in Burundi remained present. The disclaimer served as a reminder: the information being shared is a lived experience, and, in some cases, the danger is still real. 

In total, we interviewed five individuals about the experiences of themselves and those around them. The stories shared were uniquely painful yet thematically similar. State repression. Friends and family members who had been kidnapped. Friends and family members who had been killed. Abuse by the police. Abuse by the pro-government militant youth group, the Imbonerakure. Rape and sexual assualt. Torture. Fear. 

And an abiding air of resilience. 

Flash forward to mid-July: as the end of my 10-week long International Justice internship with The Advocates for Human Rights approached, President Trump announced a federal policy eliminating nearly all asylum protections for Central Americans and other migrants seeking refuge in the United States at the US-Mexico border by introducing a safe-third-country agreement. This agreement requires that migrants must have already applied for asylum at the first country they entered on their route to the US before applying for asylum in the US. If asylum-seekers fail to do so, the government may deport them to this “first country” before allowing their asylum case to be processed in the US. 

This policy raised the bar for entry from merely demonstrating a “credible fear” of persecution in the country of origin to a prohibitively high burden of proof aimed to severely reduce the number of asylum seekers accepted into the US. Therefore as more migrants apply for asylum, a greater percentage of cases are denied. Trump’s immigration policies also exist within the context of a heavily backlogged asylum queue where hundreds of thousands of cases dating back to 2010 remain in a processual limbo. 

The result? A deeply unreliable process of asylum that violates domestic law and fails to meet international standards–a process that gambles with human lives. After spending a summer in proximity to asylum cases, I understood that, more often than not, asylum is not a choice. Asylum is a means to survive. 

At the end of one call, following protocol, I asked a former client if she had any last questions for me. “I do have one,” said the woman, an asylum seeker who had survived and escaped sexual abuse by government forces,

“Is Burundi going to get better?” 

For a moment, I struggled to find an adequate response. Yet if she still retained her capacity to hope, so could I. And with brave voices like hers cooperating with NGOs to speak out against human rights abuses, we have no choice but to believe in a better future. 

By Tala Alfoqaha, a Mathematics & Global Studies major at the University of Minnesota.  Tala was the 2019 Don Fraser Human Rights Fellow with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

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A Global Look at COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

covid-19
Photo credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The Advocates is taking action to respond to increased domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our social media about the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence in countries around the world. 

Across the world, agencies are seeing an uptick in domestic violence cases as stay-at-home and limited movement orders have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some countries report a decrease in domestic violence calls to hotlines, advocates warn that this is more than likely due to victims/survivors being unable to safely make a phone call while living with their abuser. In response, hotlines around the world have implemented text and email hotline services that help victims be more discrete when attempting to access help.

Many shelters have been named “essential services,” especially in the United States, and this has allowed shelters to maintain operation of their in-person services, although these shelters are quickly becoming overcrowded. Advocates also warn that the pandemic may cause less people to seek these services due to the fear of contracting the virus. In addition, when victims are at home with their abusers, it may be more difficult for them to leave. It may also be more difficult to obtain legal services during this time, although many courts have moved proceedings online and have extended certain stipulations in order to protect victims and their children.

Although there have been efforts across the globe to address the increased risk that victims of domestic violence are now facing, gaps remain. Advocates around the world, as well governments and inter-governmental bodies like the United Nations, have led discussions on the alleviation of these barriers.

 Current state of affairs and principal concerns

Advocates around the world warn that shelter-at-home executive orders, sometimes called “safe at home” orders, will produce unintended and lethal consequences for domestic violence survivors, including:

  • Increased violence due to various aggravating factors, such as economic constraints, job loss, increased alcohol consumption and drug use, close proximity, children being at home
  • Pandemic-related abuse, such as:
    • Threatening to put victims on the street if they show symptoms
    • Making victims wash their hands until they bleed
    • Hiding essential items like hand sanitizer and soap from the victim
    • Threatening to cancel insurance
    • Circulating misinformation to victims to cause fear and deter them from leaving or seeking help;
  • Increased isolation from support systems, such as friends or family;
  • Travel restrictions that impact a victim’s escape or safety plan, or where it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or fly;
  • Decreased or eliminated access to safe havens like school, work, and community gatherings;
  • Difficulty accessing services, because of an:
    • Increased monitoring of phone activity by abusers
    • Inability to make hotline calls safely with abuser home
    • Decreased opportunities to escape
    • Decreased shelter space or shelters repurposed by the government to service COVID-19 patients
    • Fear of contracting the virus at shelters
    • Hotlines overwhelmed by increase in calls
    • Health systems that are overwhelmed by the pandemic, making it more difficult for survivors to access medical services, including therapy;
  • Increased anxiety and re-traumatization;
  • Homelessness;
  • Mental health consequences;
  • Decreased financial resources for victims to flee and support themselves due to job loss;
  • Decrease in family court approvals of requests for hearings;
  • Petitions not determined to be emergencies being dismissed or adjourned to a later date. These decisions may be made by someone in the court system screening electronically filed petitions, which could be life-or-death decisions for survivors;
  • Impacts on health workers, many of whom are women;
  • Reduced or limited access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for women subjected to violence.

What to do if you need help 

If you are in immediate danger in the U.S., call 911.

For help in Minnesota, call DayOne Hotline at 1-866-223-1111 or text 612-399-9995.

For help in the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or text LOVEIS to 22522. American Indians and Alaska Natives can also call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483).

What The Advocates is doing to strengthen protections for women

The Advocates is currently collaborating with Violence Free MinnesotaMNCASA, and Standpoint to gather information about the challenges faced by Minnesota’s justice system in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Advocates is conducting fact-finding with systems actors to provide ongoing analyses of the issues and new challenges that systems actors and courts face under the COVID-19 situation that it can provide to Violence Free Minnesota, MNCASA, and Standpoint as they develop real-time guidance to strengthen systems’ responses.

This week, The Advocates will begin posting daily with COVID-19 response information for countries around the world.  Follow @TheAdvocatesforHumanRights on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) for daily COVID-19 updates for countries around the world.

For more information on violence against women, visit our website StopVAW.org.

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The Advocates Opposes Proposed Fee Increases by Immigration Court, Appeals Board

The Advocates for Human Rights submitted comments opposing proposed fee increases by the Executive Office for Immigration Review. The agency plans to increase fees across the board. The cost of an appeal would rise by a staggering 786%, making appeals of immigration court decisions the most expensive appeals in the federal system. 


March 30, 2020

Lauren Alder Reid
Assistant Director
Office of Policy, EOIR
5107 Leesburg Pike, Suite 2600
Falls Church, VA 22041

RE: EOIR Docket No. 18-0101

Dear Assistant Director Adler Reid,

We write on behalf of The Advocates for Human Rights in response to the above-referenced Proposed Rule to express our strong opposition to the Proposed Rule to amend regulations relating to EOIR fees as proposed in the Federal Register. We first note that the comment period, occurring during an unprecedented restriction on movement and access due to the Coronovirus pandemic, provides an insufficient time to comment on these Proposed Rules.

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Founded in 1983, The Advocates for Human Rights’ mission is to implement international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. Holding Special Consultative Status at the United Nations, The Advocates regularly engages UN human rights mechanisms. The Advocates for Human Rights has provided free legal representation to asylum seekers for more than three decades, working with more than 10,000 cases to assess, advise, and represent in asylum proceedings. The Advocates for Human Rights is a global expert in women’s human rights, particularly in the area of domestic violence. We have worked in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Caucasus, Central Asia, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Mexico, Haiti, and the United States. At the request of government officials, embassies, and NGOs, we help draft laws that promote the safety of women. We have provided commentary on new and proposed domestic violence laws in nearly 30 countries. We have worked with host country partners to document violations of women’s human rights, including domestic violence. We train police, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges to implement both new and existing laws on domestic violence. In addition, our Stop Violence Against Women website serves as a forum for information, advocacy, and change and, working with the UN, we developed the Legislation and Justice sections of the UN Women’s Virtual Knowledge Center to End Violence Against Women.

The Advocates for Human Rights opposes the Agency’s Proposed Rule because it violates statutory and international human rights obligations. In addition, the Proposed Rule lacks justification, fails to appropriately account for the costs imposed on the Agency by decisions of the Department of Homeland Security, and fails to meet the “fairness” standard established by the Independent Offices Appropriations Act of 1952 (“IOAA”), 31 U.S.C. 9701. Finally, The Advocates opposes the Proposed Rule because it promises to negatively impact the most vulnerable persons subject to removal proceedings, including asylum seekers, children, and victims of trafficking.

I. The Proposed Rule Violates Federal Statute Establishing Appeal Rights and International Treaty Obligations

The Advocates opposes this rule as a violation of federal statute and of international treaty obligations. The increased fees in each category render meaningless rights to pursue appeals, motions to reopen/reconsider, and other relief statutory available. For example, the Agency’s proposed increase in the fee for Form EOIR-26, Notice of Appeal, from $110 to $975, without guidance on how and when fee waivers will be granted, renders meaningless the right of appeal for many.

While the IOAA allows collection of fees, those fees must be consistent with other U.S. laws and policies. Congress has passed the Refugee Act, the INA and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which require specific protections for certain categories of vulnerable individuals. For example, the TVPA/TVPRA require that the U.S. and its agencies take steps to protect victims of trafficking, particularly those vulnerable due to immigration status. As detailed below, the proposed fee increase—without specific guidelines that would ensure fee waivers are available and readily granted—would unduly impact trafficking victims in immigration proceedings and create incentives that may allow re-trafficking as victims attempt to get sufficient funds to cover exorbitant fees. Similarly, the 1980 Refugee Act and the INA codify the U.S. obligations under the Refugee Convention.

Federal law establishes the right to a review of decisions by the immigration judge at 8 CFR § 1003.38 International treaty and international human rights obligations require that people fleeing persecution, torture, and trafficking have access to fair adjudicatory processes to raise their claims.[1] While governments may determine the appropriate process to adjudicate protection claims, at a minimum applicants must have the opportunity to have a negative decision reviewed before expulsion.[2] The Agency cannot circumvent its obligations by setting filing fees so high as to effectively block access to the appeals process.

II. The Calculations Used by EOIR Lack Justification and are Fundamentally Unfair

The proposed appeal fee increase of 786%, born only by individuals who appeal, is particularly suspect given the dramatic rise in the number of appeals filed by ICE in recent years. In this case, the Agency’s proposed increase in appeal fees effectively eliminates the right to appeal for individual appellants but leaves the Department of Homeland Security free to appeal. The Agency charges no fee when DHS appeals a decision of the immigration judge. The proposed fee increase not only leaves many individual appellants without the ability to challenge decisions made against them, by charging fees only to respondents and not DHS, it effectively shifts the costs of DHS’s appeals onto the individual.

As the Department of Homeland Security continues to place migrants in removal proceedings, appeal and reopen an unprecedented number of cases, and implement new policies that produce greater rates of denials, more people are forced to fight their cases through the EOIR system and in ways that require many more applications, motions and appeals. Thus, the cost passed-on to the taxpayer for the significant number of appeals processed, for example, is a reflection of the need for appeals created by EOIR and its DHS counterpart; not by the migrants whom EOIR now asks to cover the full cost of driving this machine. The IOAA should not be used as an excuse to shift the cost of immigration enforcement decisions onto individuals appealing decisions of the immigration judge.

The proposed fees are calculated “based on the amount of time the step takes, the average salary of the responsible staff, and the percentage of total cases in which the step occurs.” (Prop. Rule at p. 23). It is unclear, however, how such time and staffing is determined. For example, the proposed staffing fees for an appeal to the BIA include two legal assistants, a paralegal, an attorney and a Board Member. Without further explanation of the time and contribution of each of these staffing allocations, EOIR cannot justify a nine-fold increase in the cost to appeal.

The proposed regulation purports that a fee increase is necessary to 1) update fees to account for inflation; and 2) update fees under the IOAA in order to cover operating costs. The Advocates notes that, based on inflation, the $110 cost of an appeal would be less than $250—not nearly close to the proposed $975.

In addition, The Advocates clarifies that, under the IOAA, an agency may—not must— charge fees that would ensure recovery of the full cost of providing all such services. The IOAA does not require that agencies do so. Agencies must, however, ensure that that such fees be “fair” and based on Government costs, the value of the service or thing provided to the recipient, the public policy or interest served, and other relevant facts. 31 U.S.C. 9701(b).

As the IOAA states, the fees must be fair and based on public policy and other relevant facts. The fee increase proposed is not fair. The new fee for an appeal to the BIA, for example, will be the same as one month’s salary for a family of two according to the Federal Poverty Guidelines. This cannot possibly be reasonable and fair. Moreover, the IOAA states fee scales should take into account public policy and other relevant facts. Due process requires that one be able to access justice in their case. Migrants are not provided counsel or other guarantees that would generally inure in judicial proceedings. However, due process does require that they not be priced-out of obtaining relief for which they are eligible or in such a way as to discourage them to fight their case.

The proposed fees are significantly more costly than similar fees in other courts—both in federal courts and administrative bodies. Indeed, in our sampling of a variety of other courts, the $975 fee for an EOIR appeal would be the highest appeal fee, including appeals on patents, copyright and to the U.S. Court of Appeals. This is concerning given the lack of justification for staffing costs passed-on to appellant to explain why the Agency’s operating fees are so much higher than other similarly situated—or, in the case the U.S. courts of appeals and district courts, more burdened—courts. A list of those comparisons can be found, below. Such uncommonly high costs raise the question whether fees are being raised to cover operations or to discourage pursuing relief.

US Court of Appeals — $500 fee per party filing notice of appeal.

US District Court — $38 for filling an appeal from a magistrate decision on a misdemeanor case

US Bankruptcy Court — $293 for filing an appeal or cross appeal

US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims — $50 for filing notice of appeal or petition for extraordinary relief.

Copyright Office — $350 for first appeal (per claim); $700 for second appeal (per claim). 37 CFR § 201.3(d).

USPTO Trademark Appeals — $200 for ex parte appeal, per class. 37 CFR § 2.6(a)(18).

USPTO Patent Appeals — $800 regular fee, $400 small entity fee, $200 micro entity fee. 37 CFR § 41.20(b)(1).

III. The Proposed Rule Will Severely Impact the Most Vulnerable

A. Asylum-Seekers

Requiring fees for asylum applications is unprecedented in the United States, and rightly so, as asylum is a form of humanitarian relief intended to be accessible to refugees forced to flee for their safety. Many asylum seekers arrive in the United States with few personal belongings and little or no savings. They are often dependent upon distant community connections to provide for their basic needs including housing, food, and transportation. Unable to access the social safety net and ineligible to work unless and until their asylum applications have been pending for 180 days, they are also unable to access income in order to pay the proposed filing fee.

Many of the clients The Advocates for Human Rights serves report being a burden on their hosts and are often reluctant to request help to meet their basic needs. Adding an additional hurdle, including requiring that a $50 fee be paid to initiate the asylum process, will undermines their access to the asylum process. In addition, by requiring a fee for the underlying application, motion to reopen removal proceedings based on asylum will now be subject to the new filing fees of either $145 for motions before the immigration court or $895 for motions before the Board of Immigration Appeals. Subjecting asylum seekers to this fee further erodes their ability to seek protection, reunite with family, and integrate into the United States.

B. Children and Youth

Many asylum seekers represented by The Advocates for Human Rights have been recognized as unaccompanied minors,[3] and thus lack any parent or legal guardian to care for or provide for them. The unaccompanied minor clients of The Advocates for Human Rights have been as young as seven years old when they are filing their initial application for asylum. Unaccompanied alien children are uniquely vulnerable in that they are filing their asylum claims alone, and are solely responsible for providing documentation, evidence, and testimony in support of their claims for protection from deportation to the persecution they fled. This burden placed by the legal system on unaccompanied children is already extremely high, and unparalleled in any other legal setting in which children are present.

According to UNHCR’s most recent survey of unaccompanied children, of 404 unaccompanied children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, 58 percent “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”[4] A 2017 study by the organization Kids In Need of Defense and other collaborators demonstrated extremely high level of sexual and gender-based violence suffered by female and LGBTQ unaccompanied children fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Central America.[5] The unaccompanied minor clients of The Advocates have almost universally survived traumatic experiences of child abuse, sexual abuse, death threats and beatings by transnational criminal gangs, or other extreme violence at a young age. These children have legitimate claims for refugee protection, but already face high barriers to presenting these claims. Most unaccompanied alien children lack any familiarity with the U.S. legal system and many lack access to counsel or even adults in their community that can help them navigate the court system and understand even their basic obligations within that system. Since they are not authorized to work before filing their asylum applications, and are also often prohibited from working under state law provisions, and often lack access to any adult who can or will pay application fees on their behalf, imposing fees on children seeking asylum will effectively prevent numerous legitimate refugees from accessing refugee protection.

Requiring children who have no access to any adult legally obligated to care for them to pay fees to file applications for humanitarian protection from deportation is inconsistent with U.S. and international law, unreasonable, and a violation of the rights of these children to access the legal system and seek protection from deportation. Not only does this violate numerous laws, it also will result in the deaths of vulnerable children and adolescents who are deserving of refugee protection under U.S. law.

Moreover, The Advocates for Human Rights represents many families in which parents have fled with their children to the United States seeking refugee protection. These individuals qualify for our pro bono legal services based on their very limited income. While The Advocates for Human Rights endeavors to provide access to counsel for as many asylum seekers as our resources allow, many families seeking asylum lack access to counsel. According to Syracuse University’s TRAC reports, less than 50 percent of families with children in South Dakota are represented and only slightly more than 50 percent of families with children in Minnesota are represented. Many families lack the resources to access counsel. Many of these families are unable to access counsel because of lack of resources. Imposing another financial burden on them will prevent even more families with valid claims for refugee protection from accessing the legal system, leaving the children in those families vulnerable to further persecution and torture.

C. Detained Individuals

Many asylum seekers are held in civil detention during the pendency of their asylum proceedings. This can be for past criminal history, lack of family or other community support, or simply because they don’t have access to resources to pay their bonds.[6] Asylum seekers in detention are particularly impacted by this proposed fee hike. While they are detained, they have no access to gainful employment and are forced to use any savings they have to pay for commissary, attorneys fees, or to use the high-cost phone system. Often, the detained asylum seeker is the sole or primary bread winner for their family. As such, any administrative fee, and even more so an exorbitant administrative fee, is a burden on their family and their finances. DHS should not seek to balance its budget by charging usurious fees to the most vulnerable. Rather than increasing revenue, this policy will force many immigrants and asylum seekers to forego their meritorious applications and appeals simply for lack of immediately-accessible funds. Detention is already a strain on the economy and on families. This unconscionable fee hike will only exacerbate the problem.

D. Trafficking Victims

Noncitizen trafficking victims are often vulnerable to trafficking due to prior immigration violations or uncertain immigration status. Traffickers used these vulnerabilities to exploit victims. Once victims are out of the trafficking situation, federal law provides important benefits to regularize status and ensure participation of victims in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. Yet, many such victims would need to file a motion with EOIR in order to take access these protections. Already, the $110 fee is a hurdle for many; a nine-fold increase is all the more so. Nearly $1000 is equivalent to one month’s salary at the federal poverty guidelines. Requesting that migrants have an extra month’s salary to use for these fees is not only absurd but also discriminatory against indigent families who may not have resources despite having legitimate immigration relief.

This is particularly troubling for victims of trafficking who may fall prey again if forced to take exploitative work or relationships to cover such fees. While a fee waiver remains available, many pro se applicants will not be aware of this or have the capacity to complete the form themselves. Additionally, there is no guarantee written into policy or this regulation which lays out a clear standard by which fee waivers will be judged if this regulation is implemented. Without such guidance, there is no guarantee that trafficking victims will be able to access justice in the immigration courts, which will prevent them from accessing congressionally-mandated benefits as defined in the TVPRA, and further risks new episodes of exploitation. Indeed, the Code of Federal Regulations, giving effect to the INA and TVPRA, provides that trafficking victims may file motions to reopen prior removal orders to pursue T nonimmigrant status.[7] An insurmountable filing fee of $895 – an increase of more than 713% over current fees for motions filed before the Board of Immigration Appeals – fails to give effect to these provisions and will arbitrarily restrict trafficking victims from obtaining protections afforded them.

For example, The Advocates represented a trafficking survivor who had not been identified as a trafficking survivor until we met him in ICE detention. Because he had a prior removal order, he was facing expedited removal. This, despite the fact that he detailed information about the location and strategies of his traffickers. In order to process his T visa application, however, The Advocates had to file a Motion to Reopen the old removal order. This client had been forced to work in indentured servitude under threat of death by his traffickers before escaping. He had no resources and no other supports in the U.S. However, because he was facing imminent removal due to the prior order, our office had to file the Motion to Reopen quickly and, therefore, could not take a chance that a fee waiver would be denied. An increase of the fee to nearly $1000, however, this would not be possible for a trafficking victim or nonprofit legal services organizations, and our client would likely have been swiftly removed despite being a victim of trafficking.

IV. Conclusion

The Advocates for Human Rights opposes the Agency’s Proposed Rule because it violates statutory and international human rights obligations. In addition, the Proposed Rule lacks justification, fails to appropriately account for the costs imposed on the Agency by decisions of the Department of Homeland Security, and fails to meet the “fairness” standard established by the Independent Offices Appropriations Act of 1952 (“IOAA”), 31 U.S.C. 9701. Finally, The Advocates opposes the Proposed Rule because it promises to negatively impact the most vulnerable persons subject to removal proceedings, including asylum seekers, children, and victims of trafficking.

[1] See, Conclusion No. 81 (XLVIII) 1997, para. (h) (A/AC.96/895, para. 18); Conclusion No. 82 (XLVIII) 1997 para.(d)(iii) (A/AC.96/895, para.19); Conclusion No. 85 (XLIX), 1998, para. (q) (A/AC.96/911, para. 21.3).

[2] See, Global Consultations on International Protection, (2nd Meeting) May 31, 2001, para. 32 (EC/GC/01/12).

[3] See unaccompanied alien minor definition, 6 U.S.C. § 279(g).

[4] See UNHCR, Children on the Run, available at https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/children-on-the-run.html

[5] See, Kids In Need of Defense et. Al., Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) & Migration Fact Sheet, January 2017, https://supportkind.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/SGBV-and-Migration-Fact-Sheet.pdf

[6] Unlike in the criminal context, where detainees are able to post 10% of the assigned bond to secure their release, immigration detainees must pay the entire amount. Many bond companies are unwilling to loan money to pay immigration bonds, and the minimum allowable bond in the immigration context is $1,500. TRAC reports that, in FY 2018, only one in twenty individuals had a bond amount that was less than $2,500, median bond amounts ranged from a low of $5,000 to a high of $15,000 depending upon court location, and nearly 40% of bonds were greater than $10,000. (TRAC immigration, Available at: https://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/519/).

[7] 8 C.F.R. ß 214.11(d)(9)(ii)

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Following Harvey Weinstein’s Sentencing, the message to the Rest of the World’s Prosecutors: “Just Try It!”

Women’s human rights defenders are celebrating an overdue breakthrough in prosecuting sexual assault and harassment. Former film producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced in New York to 23 years in prison on Wednesday, March 11 for his two sexual assault convictions.  He faces additional charges in Los Angeles.  Many who work against sexual violence see a clear message to criminal justice professionals:  Just try it!

The criminal laws are only as good as the professionals who enforce them.  Human rights defenders around the world, including The Advocates for Human Rights, commonly report that criminal sexual assault laws are not implemented to hold offenders accountable.  If police and prosecutors do not investigate, charge, and go to trial in sexual assault cases, then the existence of well-written laws have little effect in the community.  Of course sexual assault perpetrators often victimize repeatedly with multiple victims.  They are free to do so with impunity so long as justice professionals find reasons not to enforce the law.

But the Harvey Weinstein case serves to demonstrate what can happen when police and prosecutors do their best work to enforce sexual assault laws.  Weinstein was convicted of both acts of sexual assault he was charged with committing.  He was convicted of forcing oral sexual contact with Mimi Haleyi in 2006, and of raping then aspiring actress Jessica Mann, in 2013.  He was acquitted of three other higher-penalty charges involving those same events, but the jury found him guilty of committing the 2006 and 2013 crimes.  In short, the jury believed the two women Weinstein was charged with victimizing.

The prosecutors going into the Weinstein trial had no guarantee the jury would convict him.  They had multiple challenges to overcome and no physical or biological evidence of sexual encounters.  The prosecution was almost entirely based on the testimony of women describing acts that occurred years ago.   Haleyi and Mann, and others who also testified about Weinstein’s sexual attacks, continued to communicate with and meet with Weinstein.  They continued to be friendly to him and, in Mann’s case, even saying that she loved him.  They did not report the crimes to the police at the time.  Yet, with their testimony, along with other survivor testimony, the jury found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. 

The Weinstein verdicts support the notion that community members -serving as jurors – are ready to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable.  It won’t happen every time; prosecutors must have sufficiently thick skin to weather a few not-guilty verdicts.  But, when it comes to enforcing the sexual assault laws, if not now, when?  If not today’s prosecutors, then who?  The age-old excuse that “a jury will never convict him” is beginning to evaporate.  So, the only way to move forward is for police and prosecutors to do their best work and just try it. 

By Kaarin Long, Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights and former sex-crimes prosecutor

Featured

20 Ways to Support The Advocates for Human Rights in 2020

 

2020 Volunteer Pic

At The Advocates for Human Rights, we envision a world where every person lives with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace. We rely on volunteers to move us closer to this ideal. Volunteers are an essential part of our mission. They create a bigger impact beyond the capacity of our limited staff resources. For example, we leveraged a cash budget of $1.8 million dollars into programs and services worth more than $11 million dollars in our last fiscal year. Furthermore, by involving individuals from all walks of life in the work of human rights, we jointly build a stronger human rights movement.

We are encouraged by our volunteers who work in the trenches to protect and promote human rights. There are many ways to engage with The Advocates for Human Rights. As we move into 2020, we want to share 20 ways you can work with The Advocates to move all of us closer to a world where the inherent dignity of every person is recognized and respected.

  1. Observe WATCH hearings on violence against women and children.
  2. Observe an Immigration Court hearing.
  3. Attend a human rights training, like our Asylum Conference, or case presentation.
  4. Sponsor or attend our annual Human Rights Awards Dinner.
  5. Take on a new affirmative asylum claim.
  6. Provide ongoing representation in removal proceedings.
  7. Help interpret for our clients in another language.
  8. Participate in United Nations advocacy.
  9. Conduct research for an ongoing project, like a United Nations shadow report.
  10. Volunteer at our front desk.
  11. Participate in one of our CLE offerings.
  12. Come to a house party and meet other volunteers and supporters.
  13. Tell your friends, colleagues, and family about The Advocates for Human Rights.
  14. Help us with our mailings.
  15. Take a shift at our State Fair booth.
  16. Host a salon or neighborhood gathering on a human rights issue.
  17. Attend an Asylum Support Network
  18. Write letters to representatives advocating for human rights.
  19. Give a presentation on a human rights issue at your faith community.
  20. Like us on social media and share our posts (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Blog)

We celebrate small victories as well as the bigger successes that combine to change the world for good. Every bit helps, and small steps are essential to building the larger movement. Thank you for all that you have done to make The Advocates such a strong organization.

We look forward to working with you in 2020 to build the human rights movement by involving individuals in other sectors in the work of human rights.

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Celebrating victories in an imperfect system

Woman embracing sky 2I will admit that when I realized that I had scheduled myself for court observation the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving, I had not considered all the last-minute errands that would be put on my list, as the sole able-bodied member of my household.  So when I woke up to heavy snowfalls and school cancellations that Wednesday morning, I felt a small surge of relief, mixed with guilt. However, when I called, I was informed that Immigration Court was moving forward, full stop. So out I went.

When I saw this particular case involved a woman (I’ll call her Mary – not her real name), my interest was piqued.  It’s not all that common for women to appear on the detained docket at the Fort Snelling Immigration Court. The facts of the case were sad:  Mary had been arrested after a loud, violent domestic incident had been reported to the police.  I do not know whether her partner was also arrested.  An immigration judge had already denied her request for release on bond, citing the domestic assault charges as evidence that she was a danger to the community.

But today her request was being re-heard by a different judge.

With her was a new lawyer, and his impassioned defense was the first inkling that this hearing was not business as usual.

The judge explained that she needed evidence of a material change in circumstances in order to consider granting release on bond. The attorney replied that her previous counsel had been ineffective.  The previous counsel had failed to uncover the years of domestic abuse that Mary had endured at the hands of her partner. He not only abused Mary, but also threatened her children, several of whom were in the courtroom that day.  Her lawyer emphasized that no one had spoken directly to the children during the police investigation of the incident.

He submitted a 315-page document to support the request for a bond, including dozens of affidavits of support from her community.  He said that she had never been in trouble with the law previously, that this was her sole offense, and most importantly, that she had been acting in self-defense of herself and her children.  Mary had an upcoming child custody hearing with this partner and was determined to retain custody of her minor children.  She was clearly not a flight risk, because that hearing was her top priority.

The attorney asked for a $2000 bond because of their impoverished circumstances and the fact that she had been in custody for nine months. NINE months! [me, not the attorney]

Imagine my surprise when the judge almost interrupted the government lawyer to say that she was going to rule in Mary’s favor.  There was a slight difficulty with the microphones that day which made hearing just a tad more difficult, and the judge was speaking rapidly.  Everyone in the courtroom leaned forward to hear what she was saying.  She went on to cite well-established research in the area of domestic violence that found that typically law-abiding and nonviolent individuals will resort to self-defense to protect their children. In a high percentage of cases, women’s use of violence is actually reactionary or defensive and often preceded by severe acts of violence by their partners.

By that time, her words had been translated. I looked over and saw that Mary was sobbing.  The judge set the bond at $5000 and the attorney wheeled around to look at her daughters to get the OK.  They were both sobbing but they nodded yes.  Then I saw that most everyone in the courtroom was teary-eyed and some were openly crying. I’m crying now as I remember. Mary managed to gasp out “thank you, thank you” as she was led away.

I stopped myself from running after the daughters to write them out a check for $5000.  Really, I’m not sure what good retirement savings are – they seem like almost unbearable privilege – when we live at a time when such terrible indignities can be visited upon people like Mary.  But I knew that it would be breaking the rules of no interaction with those we observe.  I was glad to have learned through the Human Rights Defender Project (court observation) about the immigration bond fund with The Minnesota Freedom Fund.

I was very glad to have witnessed such an uplifting outcome for Mary, even though the way ahead would be difficult. She would be with her family at Thanksgiving and that was a tremendous blessing for us all.

Sue

 

 

By Susan Herridge, a volunteer court observer with The Advocates for Human Rights under the Human Rights Defender Project.

 

 

About the Human Rights Defender Project:  People detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) face barriers to basic human rights. While people detained by ICE have the right to legal counsel, they do not have the right to a government-appointed attorney. Many people, regardless of age or capability, have to represent themselves in immigration court. Detention undermines the ability to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution, to remain with family, and to a fair day in court. Although immigration court hearings are open to the public, few people witness these proceedings.

The Human Rights Defender Project Court Observers help bring transparency and accountability to this system. Court Observers attend hearings and report on issues of concern including access to counsel, family and community support, and interpretation; the manner of arrest; and the ability of individuals to raise defenses to deportation.

No immigration experience or law license is needed. This community service opportunity is open to all. Court observers must have valid government-issued photo identification to enter the immigration court. Learn more and volunteer here.

This project currently is open to observers at the Fort Snelling Immigration Court only.

 

 

 

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20 Ways to Support Human Rights in 2020

alert girl in class JP
Students at The Advocates’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School in Nepal

At The Advocates for Human Rights, we envision a world where every person lives with dignity, freedom, justice, equality, and peace.

As this year comes to a close, we know that there is still much to be done to reach that ideal. In 2019, we saw setbacks in asylum policy that put the lives of victims of human rights violations in jeopardy. The administration targeted social safety net programs that keep people afloat in hard times. Universal access to health care is still out of reach. Our partners in other countries are targeted and threatened for speaking up about basic and universally accepted human rights.

We are encouraged by those who have come forward to protect human rights. We are grateful for those who are on the front lines every day, fighting to protect the dignity and human rights of people in this country and around the world.

Nearly every day, people who are frustrated with what is happening contact us and ask what they can do to protect human rights.  For the start of the new year, we have come up with a list of suggestions to move us closer to a world where the inherent dignity of every person is recognized and respected.

Here are 20 things you can do in 2020 to support human rights:

  1. Read and educate yourself about current events and their impact on human rights.
  2. Attend events and presentations to increase your knowledge of human rights standards.
  3. Familiarize yourself with groups working on human rights issues that are important to you.
  4. Donate to an organization that reflects your human rights values.
  5. Volunteer with an organization that you support. For example, at The Advocates our volunteer opportunities include monitoring court proceedings, investigating human rights conditions and much other meaningful work for volunteers of any background.
  6. Sign a petition on an important human rights issue.
  7. Write and call your elected officials to encourage them to protect human rights and to thank them when they do.
  8. Use social media to support human rights initiatives and educate others about human rights.
  9. Write a blog post or opinion piece to share your personal experiences with advancing human rights.
  10. Organize or participate in a demonstration promoting issues you support.
  11. Ask hard questions about human rights to candidates at all levels of government.
  12. Volunteer for candidates who ground their campaigns in protecting fundamental human rights principles.
  13. Vote and actively work to get out the vote on election day.
  14. Speak up when you hear someone being mistreated.
  15. Speak up when people are repeating negative stereotypes or making discriminatory comments.
  16. Start your own positive conversations about human rights issues.
  17. Recognize your own internal biases and work to overcome them.
  18. Invite someone to your home whose background or life experience is different from yours.
  19. Read a book or see a play that expands or challenges your world view.
  20. Take care of yourself so you are ready and able to respond when opportunities to promote human rights arise.

When you focus on your efforts to advance human rights, you will start seeing opportunities every day to make the world a little bit better.

Happy New Year from all of us at The Advocates for Human Rights!

By Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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Understanding the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act

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The passage of the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act ends nearly 30 years of “temporary” status for thousands of Liberians. Signed into law on December 20, 2019, LRIFA provides a singular ray of hope in an otherwise bleak immigration landscape.

LRIFA means that many Liberians who have lived in limbo may now move forward toward permanent residence and citizenship. But while the law has generous eligibility requirements, its short filing window means Liberians need to act quickly to assess their eligibility.

Who is eligible?

  1. Any Liberian national who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date on which the application under LRIFA is filed or
  2. The spouse, child, or unmarried son or daughter of a person described in (1).

When can I file my application? 

USCIS announced that it has begun accepting LRIFA applications as of December 26, 2019. All applications must be filed within 1 year of the date of LRIFA’s enactment or no later than December 19, 2020.

I was on Ebola TPS. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I have DED or DACA or am on a valid non-immigrant visa (F-1, H-1B, etc.) right now. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I’m not on DED now. I never had TPS. Am I eligible?

Any Liberian who has been continuously present in the United States during the period beginning November 20, 2014 and the date you file your application is eligible.

I have traveled outside the United States. Will I still be eligible?

Possibly. You must have been “continuously present” in the United States between November 20, 2014 and the date you apply under LRIFA. You have been “continuously present” even if you have made a few short trips outside the United States. If your trips add up to more than 180 days outside the United States you will not be eligible.

Can I travel now?

The LRIFA does not give you permission to come into the country. If you leave, you may not be able to return. Check with an immigration lawyer before leaving the United States.

I have a criminal history. Will I still be eligible?

Possibly, but you should check with an immigration lawyer before filing any papers. You will not be eligible if you have been convicted of any aggravated felony or two or more crimes involving moral turpitude.

I took part in the Liberian civil war. Will I be eligible?

Possibly, but you should check with an immigration lawyer before filing any papers. The LRIFA says that anyone who has ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion is not eligible for a green card under the LRIFA.

I have a final order of deportation. What do I need to do?

The LIRFA is clear that DHS must establish a process to “stay” (stop) any LIRFA applicant’s removal order while the application is pending. That means that once you file your LIRFA application, you cannot be deported unless your LIRFA application is denied.

If you were ordered deported because your asylum application was denied, you overstayed your visa, you did not renew your DED or TPS, for other reasons besides a criminal conviction, you should be eligible under the LRIFA. You will not need to file a motion to reopen. If you were ordered deported because of a criminal conviction, you might not be eligible. Talk to an immigration lawyer before you file anything.

I am in detention with a final order of deportation. What should I do?

We do not expect ICE to attempt to deport people who are eligible for LIRFA. Liberians in detention who may be eligible for LIRFA should:

  • Tell your detention officer that you intend to apply for LIRFA.
  • Contact your immigration attorney to make a plan for filing the application as soon as possible. If you do not have an immigration attorney, contact the free legal service providers who work at your detention center or call 612-341-9845.
  • Make sure a trusted family member or friend knows where you are. They can check the ICE Online Detainee Locator with your full name and date of birth or A-number.

I do not have a work permit right now. Can I work under LRIFA?

Once you file your LRIFA application you will be able to apply for employment authorization. DHS may issue you a work permit right away. If your LRIFA application for adjustment of status is pending for a period exceeding 180 days and has not been denied, DHS must authorize employment.

How can I get ready to file my LRIFA application?

  • Save money. You will need to pay the filing fee and a biometrics fee. At this time the fee is $1,225 for an adult, and the fees are scheduled to increase (make sure to check the USCIS.gov website for up-to-date filing fee information when you are ready to file). You will also need an immigration medical exam, which may not be covered by insurance.
  • Gather proof of continuous presence. You will need to show that you have been “continuously present” in the United States as of November 20, 2014. USCIS will provide more instructions about what you will need, but you will likely need copies of some documents like pay stubs, leases, or other records showing you were in the United States. If you traveled outside the United States, you will need to calculate the exact number of days you were outside the country.
  • Make a list of your addresses and your employers from the last 5 years. The application form asks for this information.
  • If you ever filed for asylum, get a copy of that application and have an immigration lawyer review it before you file.

Do I need a lawyer?

You should talk with an experienced immigration lawyer or BIA accredited representative if you have any questions about how to file your application or whether you are eligible for LRIFA adjustment. Every case is different, so do not rely on advice given to someone else. Get your own answers before you file.

  • Criminal convictions may affect your eligibility for LRIFA adjustment. Talk to a lawyer before you file.
  • What you said in your asylum application may affect your eligibility for LRIFA adjustment. Talk to a lawyer before your file.

How do I find an immigration lawyer?

  • You can hire a lawyer to prepare and file your application and help respond to any questions from USCIS. You can also consult with a lawyer to answer questions. Different lawyers charge different fees. Ask about fees before you agree to have the lawyer represent you. Ask whether they charge a flat fee or charge by the hour. Ask about payment plan options. Always get a fee agreement (sometimes called a retainer agreement) in writing. Take time to review it before signing. You can find immigration lawyers at www.ailalawyer.com
  • Free legal services may be available if you have a low income. You can find free and low-cost legal services at www.immigrationlawhelp.org. We know our colleagues at the Black Immigrant Collective will be organizing events in Minnesota. Watch for community legal advice clinics near you.

Where do I find forms and filing instructions?

The federal government’s website is the best place to find accurate information about filing your LRIFA application. Check www.uscis.gov/i-485. Each tab on the page contains specific information about LRIFA applications.

Note: This blog is not legal advice. Every case is different. Please consult with an experienced immigration attorney before making any decision about your case.

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Bringing the worldwide movement to end the arbitrary death penalty to the U.S. Supreme Court

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Connie Numbi of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Uganda & The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist serve on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

I’ve spent the last few days in Paris immersed in the work of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty—collaborating with other members the Coalition’s Steering Committee to review our accomplishments over the past year and to define our countries and issues of focus for the next three years, and attending workshops to prepare for a four-year project funded by the European Union to combat the death penalty in several African countries and other countries at risk of resuming executions. But when I get on the plane for Minneapolis Wednesday, it will be time to switch gears and think about the connections between The Advocates’ involvement with the international abolitionist movement and death penalty issues closer to home.

On Wednesday, December 11, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral argument in a death penalty case called McKinney v. Arizona.  With pro bono assistance from Dechert LLP, The Advocates for Human Rights and the World Coalition submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of the petitioner, James McKinney, who was sentenced to death in Arizona for his involvement in two 1991 murders. McKinney was 23 years old at the time of the crimes.

amicus brief

We work to limit the scope of the death penalty

The Advocates, like the World Coalition, is opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. In some countries, however, we don’t expect immediate abolition of the death penalty. As an interim measure, we try to limit the scope and applicability of the death penalty, consistent with international human rights standards.

Article 6, paragraph 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” In the context of the death penalty, this language means that a person charged with a crime eligible for the death penalty must receive a fair trial and the jury (or judge) must consider all relevant evidence before deciding whether to sentence the person to death.

My Steering Committee colleague Connie Numbi, who represents the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) in Uganda, notes that several East African countries such as Tanzania and Botswana have a mandatory death penalty. If a person is convicted of certain crimes, the death sentence is automatic. No judge or jury hears evidence about the nature of the crime, why the person committed it, or what “mitigating” factors might warrant a sentence other than death.

The death penalty is arbitrary if the defense can’t present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances and the circumstances of the offense

The Human Rights Committee (the UN body in charge of interpreting the Covenant) has explained that any mandatory imposition of the death penalty violates Article 6, paragraph 1 because it is arbitrary:

In all cases involving the application of the death penalty, the personal circumstances of the offender and the particular circumstances of the offence, including its specific attenuating elements must be considered by the sentencing court. Hence, mandatory death sentences that leave domestic courts with no discretion on whether or not to designate the offence as a crime entailing the death penalty, and on whether or not to issue the death sentence in the particular circumstances of the offender, are arbitrary in nature.

Similarly, Article 6, paragraph 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes,” The Human Rights Committee has explained that under this provision, the death penalty “must not be applied except for the most serious crimes, and then only in the most exceptional cases and under the strictest limits.”

McKinney never had a fair chance to present evidence of his personal circumstances

Which brings us to McKinney’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court. A jury found McKinney guilty of murder, but at the time, under Arizona law, a judge was responsible for deciding the appropriate sentence. McKinney’s attorneys presented evidence to the judge about McKinney’s horrific childhood, including evidence McKinney has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from his abuse. The judge accepted McKinney’s PTSD diagnosis but did not consider it in deciding on the sentence. Indeed, under Arizona law at the time, the judge was prohibited from taking into account any evidence of mitigating factors that were not causally connected to the crime.

An appellate court ruled that the judge was wrong to reject the PTSD evidence. The State of Arizona then took up the case with the Arizona Supreme Court, asking that court to review the sentencing decision. McKinney argued that he was entitled to a new sentencing hearing, particularly because in the interim the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that juries—not judges—must make any factual findings relevant to deciding whether to sentence someone to death.

But the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed. It decided to conduct an independent review of McKinney’s sentence. In so doing, it said that McKinney’s conviction had been finalized before that Supreme Court ruling. And it then went on to look at the trial transcript and make its own sentencing decision, concluding that the mitigating evidence wasn’t sufficient to warrant a punishment other than death.

McKinney takes his case to the Supreme Court

Before the U.S. Supreme Court, McKinney will argue that the Arizona Supreme Court made two mistakes. First, when it reopened the case, the Arizona Supreme Court should have applied the current law, requiring a jury (rather than a judge) to make the factual determinations relevant to a death sentence. Second, the Arizona Supreme Court should have given McKinney the opportunity for a new hearing to present mitigating evidence, rather than simply reading the trial transcript.

Our friend of the court brief: The U.S. Supreme Court helped build a consensus under international human rights law that people like McKinney must have a fair chance to present all their mitigating evidence

Our amicus brief sheds light on the connection between Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—a treaty the United States ratified in 1992—and McKinney’s case. Our brief notes that the Human Rights Committee’s comments rejecting the mandatory death penalty are rooted in a consensus that began with a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, which ruled that a mandatory death penalty law in North Carolina was unconstitutional.

Our Supreme Court’s reasoning in that case gradually helped build a consensus among national courts and international human rights mechanisms favoring individualized sentencing in capital cases. In 2009, for example, in a case that FHRI initiated, the Ugandan Supreme Court struck down that country’s mandatory death penalty for murder, and earlier this year the Ugandan parliament adopted a law eliminating several provisions rendering the death penalty mandatory. Kenya’s Supreme Court followed Uganda’s lead and struck down the mandatory death penalty in 2017. Malaysia is also taking steps to limit the mandatory nature of the death penalty.

Our brief cites the Ugandan Supreme Court as well as a long line of Human Rights Committee rulings recognizing that under Article 6, a person has the right to “individualized sentencing” where defense counsel may present evidence about the defendant’s personal circumstances as well as the circumstances of the crime.

Our brief also points out that the U.S. Federal Government has repeatedly assured the Human Rights Committee that in capital cases “the jury must be able to consider and give effect to any mitigating evidence that a defendant proffers.”

By the time I get off the plane, court-watchers will be sharing their spin on the oral argument, and by the end of the week, the Court will probably release a transcript I can read to get caught up. And then it will be a matter of waiting to see whether the Court will build on the foundation of international human rights law that it helped lay to ensure that McKinney finally has a chance to tell a jury his story.

Click these links to learn more about the death penalty in Uganda and Malaysia, and The Advocates’ death penalty work.

Amy Bergquist is Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program. She is Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and represents The Advocates on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.

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New Help for Volunteer Attorneys Representing Domestic Violence Survivors

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Imagine you suffered years of near daily physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from your husband in silence, knowing that every time you tried to escape, he found you and beat you worse for attempting to leave him.

Imagine he told you that you were his property and your role as his wife was to serve him for the rest of your life.

Imagine you go to the police, begging them to keep you safe. They refuse, saying that your husband has the right to discipline his wife how he chooses. Your husband finds out and beats you worse to punish you for going to the police.

Terrified, you flee with your children to the United States, determined to give them a better life. You have heard that, in the United States, people believe women should have the same rights as men. You hear that there are laws in the United States against domestic violence, and that the laws are followed.

After a dangerous journey, you finally reach the United States. You file for asylum, but while your case is pending the law protecting domestic violence survivors changes. Now you live in fear that you will be deported back to the nightmare you and your children fled.

This situation is the lived reality of many domestic violence survivors represented by The Advocates for Human Rights and our volunteer attorneys. In the summer of 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions issued a decision in Matter of A-B- that threw into question the well-established precedent recognizing a protected group for survivors of domestic violence whose home country governments did not protect them from their abusers.

Following the Matter of A-B- decision, many judges around the country have recognized that domestic violence survivors who cannot receive protection from their home country governments continue to qualify for protection. In too many cases, however, judges have used this decision to deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic and family violence.

To support the efforts of our volunteer attorneys and others in the Eighth Circuit arguing for protection of asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence, we have issued Gender-Based Asylum Claims in the Wake of Matter of A–B– A Supplement for Practice in the Eighth Circuit. Drafted with our pro bono partners at Gray Plant Mooty, this practice advisory includes extensive strategy guidance that advocates can use to protect their clients.

Please consider taking a pro bono case with The Advocates for Human Rights today. Your work can save the lives, and families, of domestic violence survivors.

By Alison Griffith, a staff attorney working for refugee and immigrant rights at The Advocates for Human Rights

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Risking it all for Human Rights

Gretchen Piper speaking from Sarah Brenes
Volunteer Gretchen Piper speaking at a recent house party to support women’s human rights

Remarks from volunteer Gretchen Piper

Collectively, we risked nothing in attending tonight’s event—in coming together to advocate for others.

People around the world risk everything.

In July, Julianne and I attended a conference in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The conference was called by The Advocates for Human Rights. We were part of a team of 7 volunteers, trained by The Advocates, and assigned to collect the stories of 31 human rights defenders from 17 countries.

The first morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room at 8 a.m. Our first task was to find a coffee tin …

… to block cell phone signals.

Some participants worried their cell phones had been compromised, participants like Hanna from a Central European country. When her 8-year-old mobile phone was stolen during a lunch break, Hanna contacted her sister to let her know she was safe. She then activated her safety protocol to ensure that her phone was not compromised.

With the tin can secured, Julianne and I opened the conference with a talking circle. Our job was to quickly establish an environment of safety and trust—so people would share their stories.

As they did, a terrifying pattern emerged: the rise of populism and the radical right have fueled violence against women, the LGBT community and immigrants across the globe.

Participants shared harrowing stories of violence, of police ignoring hate crimes—of courts not enforcing laws that protect vulnerable communities.

What is as terrifying as the violence itself is this fact:

Violence. Discrimination. Human Rights Abuses. They are a tactic in a larger geopolitical effort to ensure that powerful global business interests have their candidates in elected positions of power.

Our new friends from Italy, Austria, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine cited examples of extremist candidates elected by inciting fear of immigrants, of losing their “native” cultures, of ceding to gender politics.

The right is well organized, disciplined and well-coordinated … around the globe.

The right is a force we need to match, and The Advocates for Human Rights is on the forefront of that battle. With more than 20 years of experience in working with women’s groups in Europe, providing advocacy, legal training, and research, The Advocates is a trusted partner. They have a proven track record of leveraging skilled volunteers and building local capacity for action.

Rose and her team had prepared us well.

The conference galvanized the participants. They vowed to support one another, to reclaim human rights tools for rapid response to defend against false information and media attacks. To train lawyers, work with police and prosecutors, to learn effective communications strategies, to share resources and continue to meet—no matter the risks.

Two weeks after I returned home, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my kids to finish practice, thinking about what to make for dinner, what work I needed to finish. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the headlines.

In my news feed, was my new friend, Svetlana, an LGBT advocate in Russia whom I had met at the conference in Croatia.

Svetlana was speaking about her colleague, Yelena Grigoryeva, a well-known LGBT activist in Russia. Yelena had been found stabbed to death—murdered—outside her St. Petersburg apartment.

Days earlier, Yelena had gone to the police to report that she was on a “Gay Kill List.”

Just this past week, Svetlana, was in the news again. She and her colleagues in the Russian LBGT community were imploring the police and the ministry of internal affairs to solve Yelena’s murder—to find the people behind the Gay Hit List, a list published by an anonymous online group called Saw, after the American cult horror film. Saw continues their assault, offering cash for murders—and telling LBGT activists that unless they murder their own colleagues, they themselves will be killed.

Julianne and I don’t want to lose another friend, which is why we teamed up today to ask for your help.

Help people who are risking it all. Support The Advocates for Human Rights at TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/donate.

Gretchen Piper is a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights and President of Gretchen Piper, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, fund raising, and marketing.

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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Remembering the Origins of WATCH

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Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, presents Susan Lenfestey with the 2019 Golden WATCH Award

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as well as the month in which Sheila Wellstone and her husband Sen. Paul Wellstone died in the crash of a small airplane in 2002.

For those who knew her, the two are forever linked, because Sheila was a leader in bringing awareness to the crushing impact of domestic violence.

A self-described ‘wrestling mom’, Sheila traveled the state with Paul during his 1990 senate campaign.  As she sat in coffee shops and VFW halls, she heard women talking about the abuse they suffered in their own homes at the hands of the men they thought loved them.  While economic dependency played a role, it was also a mix of fear and shame that shackled them to their abusers.

Recognizing these women and children needed laws and services to help them find safety and to break the cycle of violence, Sheila and Paul enlisted then Sen. Joe Biden to help them draft the bill that would become the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Meanwhile, 1991 saw the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court and the testimony of Anita Hill about the sexual comments Thomas had allegedly made to her when they worked together in a previous job.   The panel of male senators sniggered their way through her testimony like embarrassed schoolboys, and we know how that turned out. I still believe Anita Hill!

Shortly after that, the Star Tribune ran a series called “Free to Rape,” detailing the lenient sentencing practices in Minnesota in cases of rape and domestic assault.

In that series, a Hennepin County victims’ advocate said that she wished there was an organization like MADD to keep an eye on the courts.  “Until that happens, nothing will change.”

That article was the catalyst for WATCH (Women At The Court House, later condensed to WATCH), which I helped found later that year.  The mission was to make the courts more responsive and effective in handling cases of violence against women and children and to create a more informed and involved public.

The idea was simple: trained volunteers would monitor felony cases of sexual assault and domestic violence from arraignment through sentencing. They would note “objectively observable behaviors” of court personnel, such as timeliness, ability to he heard, attentiveness to the victim, apparent race of the victim and the defendant, amount of bail set, any upward or downward departures from the sentencing guidelines, as well as how much of the proceeding took place in the judges’ chambers.

Cases with unusual outcomes would be referred to staff for further research to develop a more complete understanding of the issues affecting the case.   WATCH looked for systemic patterns of behavior, not for the occasional misstep.

And yes, volunteers would carry clipboards because judges requested a way for them to be easily identifiable to them, but not to a jury.  Red clipboards were chosen because they were on sale the day we went shopping, not as an incendiary color to intimidate anyone (as one judge later charged)!

After one year, WATCH issued its first report, Hennepin County Criminal Courts, A View from the Outside, which was based on observing more than 1600 appearances in cases related to domestic abuse and criminal sexual conduct.  The report can be found here:

The report made recommendations on how the often-byzantine system could be more easily navigated by the public, especially victims and their families, as well as changes to certain policies that left victims exposed to more danger  As Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel Mabley wrote at the time, “The report demonstrates that sometimes the best ideas for change come from “outsiders” who are not biased by the assumptions and history that often blinds insiders to the need or potential for change.”

Over the years, WATCH expanded into observing and reporting on similar cases at the misdemeanor level, conducted a multi-year monitoring and research project in child protection court, advocated successfully for a designated domestic violence court, monitored family court in order for protection hearings, compared sentencing practices in misdemeanor domestic violence cases in the suburban courts to those in the downtown court, worked to pass legislation making strangling a felony offense, not a misdemeanor, and much more.  Recently, WATCH expanded into Ramsey and Washington counties and issued two reports on the prosecution of sex trafficking in those jurisdictions.

But in the very early years, we were encouraged and guided by Sheila Wellstone. She moved behind the scenes to bring domestic violence out of the shadows. With others, including WATCH, she helped change the legal and cultural attitudes that viewed domestic violence as a family matter.

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Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Womens’ Human Rights Program, and Susan Lenfestey announcing that WATCH will become a project of The Advocates for Human Rights (June 2019)

WATCH recently became a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, and I cannot imagine a more perfect partnership.

Our work is cut out for us.  In 2017, 24 people in Minnesota died as a result of domestic violence, 19 of them women, the other five family members or friends of the victims.

All acts of violence are horrific, but violence in the home passes its toxic seeds on to the next generation, and the next after that. Children who grow up witnessing abuse have a difficult time breaking the cycle.

In October, we pause to remember those who have been silenced by an intimate partner, and to renew our commitment to end the pandemic of domestic violence.  And I’d add, to honor the courageous work of Sheila Wellstone.

To volunteer with The Advocates’ WATCH Project, please click here.

By: Susan Lenfestey, founder of WATCH, the court monitoring and judicial policy non-profit based in Minneapolis, MN. Susan is the 2019 Gold WATCH Award Recipient. 

 

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The Rights of Children Whose Parents Are Sentenced to Death – The Case of Tunisia

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Lisa Borden (The Advocates for Human Rights), Bronwyn Dudley (World Coalition for Human Rights,and Choukri Latif (Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort)

As a longtime practicing attorney in the United States, I spent much of my professional career working on cases related to criminal justice, including prison conditions and the death penalty. My death penalty work brought me in contact with The Advocates for Human Rights several years ago, when I had the opportunity to write a report to the UN Human Rights Council about the death penalty in the United States. So began a volunteer relationship in which I was able to participate in The Advocates’ UN work to abolish the  death penalty and many other issues. It’s thanks to that relationship that I’m now studying International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights at the Geneva Academy in Switzerland, and hope to continue addressing criminal justice issues using different approaches after graduation.

While pursuing my studies, I am also still a volunteer for The Advocates in Geneva. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-session meeting with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding Tunisia’s progress in implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The pre-session meetings provide a chance for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other interested stakeholders to provide information to the Committee in a confidential setting. I joined Bronwyn Dudley of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and Choukri Latif of the Coalition tunissiene contre la peine de mort (a Tunisian anti-death penalty NGO), to address the committee regarding Tunisia’s failure to implement the rights of children whose parents have been sentenced to death or were executed. The Advocates, the Tunisian Coalition, and the World Coalition highlighted these issues in a recent report to the Committee.

Children: Unseen victims of the death penalty

WDADP 2019 poster

This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty, on October 10, 2019, will focus on how children around the world are affected by the death penalty, so meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was a timely opportunity to apply this broader concern to a concrete situation. The World Coalition seeks to raise awareness of the severely damaging psychological trauma inflicted upon children whose parents are sentenced to death, at every stage of the process from arrest to incarceration to execution.

Punishing Tunisian Children for Their Parents’ Wrongdoing Violates the Convention

As in many retentionist countries, people sentenced to death in Tunisia typically spend many years in prison. Indeed, since Tunisia has thankfully been observing a moratorium on the death penalty since 1991, parents who are sentenced to death may spend decades in prison. As Choukri explained in his opening statement to the Committee, Tunisia is failing to protect the rights of those children to maintain meaningful relationships with their parents during their incarceration. Many of these parents are incarcerated far away from their families, and the prohibitive costs of transportation prevent children from exercising their visitation rights. Even for those who can do so, visits are limited to 30 minutes and, for younger children, direct physical contact with the parent is not permitted. Children of death-sentenced and executed parents are not provided with badly needed medical and mental health care to cope with the trauma they endure. Additionally, a new anti-terrorism law has expanded the potential application of the death penalty in Tunisia, including to children themselves, and is very unclear as to what conduct is covered.

Tunisia Must Reform Its Laws and Practices to Respect Children’s Rights

Several Committee members posed questions. The Committee’s questions provided me with an opportunity to offer some specifics about the failings of Tunisia’s laws, and how Tunisian authorities must address those failings to bring Tunisia into compliance with its human rights obligations. We also provided more information about the government’s purported justification for the anti-terrorism law and possible alternative measures.

Around the world, the death penalty in anti-terrorism laws is typically justified as a supposed deterrent to would be terrorists. But academic research reveals that there is no support for the notion that the death penalty is a deterrent to terrorism. In 2016, the UN Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, torture, and human rights while countering terrorism, respectively, specifically warned against using the death penalty in an effort to deter terrorism, stating:

“there is a lack of persuasive evidence that the death penalty could contribute more than any other punishment to eradicating terrorism. The death penalty is also an ineffective deterrent because terrorists who are executed may just gain in prestige, as may their cause.”

In other words, the death penalty, if it has any impact at all, may provide incentives to terrorists.

Tunisia Creates Unnecessary Barriers to Children’s Rights

With regard to the need to continue reviewing and revising laws, I offered the laws affecting children of death-sentenced parents as an example showing that Tunisia’s laws are not yet compatible with the Convention and continue to be in need of reform. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 expressly recognizes the rights of children and the government’s obligation to act in their best interests, and the law on Special Regulations for Prisons expressly provides that children are entitled to visit their detained parents. But these laws are vague and do not give Tunisian authorities direction about how to account for the recognized rights and obligations. In law and in practice, Tunisia continues to violate children’s rights through arbitrary interference (30 minute visit limitations and lack of physical contact), and failure of the government to make any provision to address the financial barriers associated with transportation to far-flung prison facilities. The latter failure constitutes a de facto denial of the right to visit, but Tunisia does nothing to take this right into account when deciding where a parent will be incarcerated. In fact, Tunisian authorities often deliberately place parents far from their families, considering such isolation to be part of the parent’s punishment. Such punishment obviously violates the rights of the child, just as expressly denying visits would.

I was also able, thanks to the detailed research Bronwyn conducted before the meeting, to point the Committee to two of its own previous recommendations that supported our position that Tunisia has a positive obligation to take the child’s interests into account during criminal proceedings related to the parent.

To learn more about The Advocates’ work on the Death Penalty, click here. For ideas of things you can do to take action for World Day Against the Death Penalty, click here.

By: Lisa Borden, a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, currently based in Geneva, Switzerland.

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The Fight Against the Death Penalty Continues

Brunei
Brunei Darussalam’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council 

In May 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 33rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as part of the third cycle of the review process. The UPR examines the status and progress of human rights in all 193 member countries of the United Nations. (For more information about the UPR, check out Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tool for a Changing World here.) Among other countries, both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brunei Darussalam received recommendations to further their progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

Both countries have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Brunei has had no reported executions since 1957, and the DRC has had the moratorium since 2003. But neither country has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to officially move toward abolition of the death penalty. Even though international human rights standards mandate that countries retaining the death penalty must reserve it for only the most serious crimes, Brunei continues to sentence people by hanging for far less.

Under the Syariah Penal Code, adultery, sodomy, rape, apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are all punishable by death by stoning in Brunei. In the DRC, the administration of the death penalty lacks transparency. Just last year, the government handed down 41 death sentences.

At the Universal Periodic Review

Due to these issues, at the UPR in May both countries faced increasing pressure to abolish the death penalty. Brunei Darussalam received 96 recommendations on the death penalty from 50 countries–38.6% of all recommendations the country received, and a 336% increase from Brunei’s second cycle UPR. The recommendations ranged from ratification of the Convention against Torture to repealing problematic provisions in the Penal Code. The DRC received death penalty recommendations from 17 countries, an increase of 13.3% from the second cycle.

The Advocates, together with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, pushed for these recommendations behind the scenes. The two organizations submitted joint stakeholder reports on both countries. (To read the full reports, visit: Brunei and the DRC). Through both emails and in-person meetings, The Advocates lobbied 48 of the 50 countries that made death penalty recommendations to Brunei Darussalam, and 16 out of the 17 countries that made death penalty recommendations to the DRC.

A Lack of Progress?

After taking months to examine the recommendations from May, last month both Brunei Darussalam and the DRC “noted” all the recommendations relevant to the death penalty. In the language of the UN, noted means rejected. Both countries cited their respective sovereignty over the issue as the reason for rejecting the recommendations. Brunei Darussalam used the country’s religious background to justify the current use the death penalty in the Penal Code. Many countries and organizations, including Belgium and the UK, urged the government of Brunei to reconsider its decision. Similarly, a representative of the government of the DRC told the Human Rights Council that the nation’s own parliament should make the final decision on the death penalty. A delegate from Germany, however, urged the DRC to ratify the Second Protocol.

Despite noting these recommendations in the official meeting, the Brunei government took a small step forward. On May 6, the Brunei government announced that it would extend its moratorium on capital punishment to the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. Under laws that had taken effect in April, the two crimes would otherwise have been eligible for the death sentence of stoning. Furthermore, a representative from the government of Brunei told the Human Rights Council that the government had been making progress toward ratifying the Convention Against Torture. Many governments and non-governmental organizations welcomed this move.

The fight persists

This small victory, however, should not overshadow the larger picture. Despite overall progress toward abolition of the death penalty, many countries’ practices are far removed from international human rights standards. The cases of Brunei Darussalam and the DRC signal the difficulty ahead. The Advocates will continue to fight for a humane justice system on an international level.

To learn more about the death penalty, please visit our website here. Also, October 10 is the 2019 World Day against the Death Penalty, and encourage you to get involved.

To watch the full videos of the September 2019 meetings of the Human Rights Council adopting the outcomes of the UPRs of Brunei and the DRC, please visit the links below:

Brunei Darussalam

The Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Yunze Wang, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and a student at Macalester College.

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Sexual Education in Schools in the Republic of Moldova

Laura Vition

My name is Laura.  I am 15 years old and I am from the Republic of Moldova. I am a sociable person and passionate about different things such as traveling, reading, psychology, photos and blogging, film and social justice. This is my first post for Advocates for Human Rights blog and I want to share some of  my experience and thoughts about human rights and related issues specific to teenagers, such as cyberbullying, harassment and discrimination.

I have been volunteering for different organizations since I was 13.  My first volunteer experience was for one of the largest youth-led networks in Moldova which works with and for young people between the ages of 13 and 24 to advance and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of adolescents and youth. I was 14 years old when I finished the training and became one of the Y – peer trainers. The trainers have to organize several public discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights for their peers in their lyceums.

I have to say that education about sexual and reproductive health and rights is almost absent in Moldova. Moldova is a traditional country, where the influence of the church is very large. We do not talk freely about sex, sexuality, reproductive health, menstruation, contraception, mutual consent, etc. These topics are still considered taboo, and even indecent and dirty, especially if this interest or questions are coming from teenagers. We cannot discuss these subjects with teachers and parents because we are concerned about their reactions, which are usually negative. As my mother says, the same was true 25 years ago and nothing has changed. I thought that teachers who cannot talk about sexual and reproductive health and rights would welcome an organization with relevant experience in the field, so I decided to organize four informative lessons in my school.

The experience of talking in public about things which girls should not say was great and challenging at the same time. Some boys tried to intimidate me, telling jokes, ignoring, giggling or interrupting me, while others tried to encourage me to continue. The worst thing was the pressure from my teacher who was present for the last lesson. She did not interfere while several boys were laughing and asked the boys to leave the class when I was talking about menstruation. Furthermore, she said that the subjects were inappropriate, and talking about contraception at this age is a sign of immorality and indicates that you have already had sex. When this insinuation is coming from an adult who has power and authority is even worse. It sounds like permission for pupils to stalk somebody. Honestly, I felt so bad that after finishing the lesson that, when nobody could see me, I cried. The next day the teacher was called by one angry parent of a boy who said that these topics should not be discussed in the school. Even now, after several years, I am wondering why the adults are so afraid of talking about normal things, even more so than their children. In actuality, we view these things as normal, and even joke that we could provide some new information to our parents.

Nothing has changed since then except the increasing number of rapes, sexual harassment and pregnant teenagers. Of course, when something like this is happening the girl is the one to be blamed and the one whose life is changing dramatically. I know some of the politicians in our country have started to talk about the importance of  sexual and reproductive education, but they are still very reserved. I hope, however, that my generation will manage to push these challenging issues forward on the political agenda and get rid of the traditional influence.

By youth blogger Laura Vition. Laura is a high school student in Chisinau, Moldova. 

Proposed Regulation Seeks to Remove Adjudication Deadline, Threatens to Leave Asylum Seekers Without Work Authorization Indefinitely

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Asylum seekers in the United States may not work without authorization from federal immigration authorities. Proposed regulations threaten to leave asylum seekers without employment authorization indefinitely which they await decisions on their asylum applications.

Federal law prohibits asylum applicants from receiving employment authorization unless their applications have been pending at least 180 days. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(d)(2). Current regulations seek to ensure that people with pending asylum applications can work as soon as authorized by statute. The administration has proposed new regulations that would eliminate the regulatory time frame in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must grant or deny the employment authorization application.

Under existing federal law, a person with a pending asylum application may apply for and receive authorization to work while their asylum application is pending. Regulations require an asylum applicant to wait at least 150 days after submitting an asylum application before they may apply for employment authorization. DHS, in turn, must process the application within 30 days of receipt, making the total wait time about six months after applying for asylum. 8 CFR § 208.7(a)(1).

The Department of Homeland Security has flagrantly disregarded the 30-day rule, resulting in a 2018 federal court order requiring DHS to comply with its own regulation and process applications within the required timeframes. Rosario v. USCIS. [1]

Rather than complying with the federal court order, DHS is trying to change the rule. On September 9, 2019, USCIS issued a proposed regulation to eliminate the 30-day processing rule and give the agency an unlimited window in which to process work permit applications.[2]

DHS is currently accepting comments on the proposed elimination of the 30-day processing time, and we encourage those concerned to submit such comments.

WHY THIS MATTERS

The Advocates for Human Rights is concerned that this change will harm clients, businesses, and communities by further delaying the time an asylum applicant must wait to legally work or get a driver’s license while their application is pending. This change will burden private support systems and charities, make it difficult for small businesses to find workers, and could have multiplier effects in terms of destabilizing communities. The Advocates is also concerned that this change represents yet another attack on the part of this Administration, which has consistently attempted to impede the right to seek asylum.

Of particular concern is the proposed elimination of the 30-day rule without providing a maximum processing time. Already, the six-month waiting period places a heavy burden on asylum seekers who were forced to flee, often having to leave behind or spend in transit any resources they may have had.

Asylum seekers today face long backlogs in asylum processing, often waiting years after filing the asylum application for an interview and, even later, a decision. Asylum seekers are often vulnerable, with medical and mental health needs due to their trauma and persecution. Generally excluded from public assistance, asylum seekers must work to provide food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs for themselves and their families. Asylum seekers who were forced to leave spouses and children behind must save thousands of dollars to pay for travel expenses. Without employment authorization, asylum seekers are dependent on individual and other private charity.

Indefinitely blocking asylum seekers’ ability to support themselves and their families is an abuse of discretion and an attempt to further deter people from seeking asylum in the United States. The proposed rule comes on top of extreme adjudication delays by USCIS across all types of cases and recent changes in USCIS customer service procedures which make it nearly impossible to follow up on pending cases.

In addition, the proposed rule is part of a pattern of animus towards the right to seek asylum this administration has shown. The justifications contained in the proposed rule are veiled attempts to justify what is an attack on the rights of asylum seekers and a pattern of practice by this administration aimed at breaking the asylum system.

The Administration attempts to justify the proposed rule on the basis of national security and vetting concerns and on administrative efficiency interests. In terms of administrative efficiency, the proposed rule notes the burden that has resulted from shifting staff to timely process EAD applications in compliance with Rosario v. USCIS and claims there will be a cost saving by eliminating the timeline. However, it notes “USCIS could hire more officers, but has not estimated the costs of this and therefore has not estimated the hiring costs that might be avoided if this proposed rule were adopted.”

The proposal also cites vague security concerns which the federal court in Rosario found to be sufficiently low to order USCIS to comply with the 30-day processing deadline. Any need for additional vetting prior to issuance of employment authorization could be addressed by less draconian means than simply eliminating the processing parameters for all applicants.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. The United States has committed to that principle through the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the Refugee Convention and Protocol, and the Convention Against Torture. This right has been codified in federal law. Without access to a means of basic support during the asylum process, the United States weakens its commitment to this fundamental human right.

WHAT TO DO

We encourage our volunteers, communities, and supporters—as well as applicants themselves—to submit a comment to USCIS discouraging this change.  Directions for how to do so can be found below, and sample wording is provided. Comments must be received on or before November 8, 2019.

In particular, DHS is specifically seeking comments on the following items.  Therefore, comments by supporters who have specific knowledge or relation to the following topics would be encouraged:

  • DHS also acknowledges the distributional impacts associated with an applicant waiting for an EAD onto the applicant’s support network. DHS cannot determine how much monetary or other assistance is provided to such applicants. DHS requests comments from the public on any data or sources that demonstrate the amount or level of assistance provided to asylum applicants who have pending EAD applications.
  • DHS requests comments from the public that would assist in understanding costs not described herein as relates to the impact on small businesses (referencing the IRFA).

HOW TO SUBMIT A COMMENT

You may submit comments on the entirety of this proposed rule package, which is identified as DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001, by any one of the following methods:

· Mail: Samantha Deshommes, Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Mailstop #2140, Washington, DC 20529-2140. To ensure proper handling, please reference DHS Docket No. USCIS-2018-0001 in your correspondence. Mail must be postmarked by the comment submission deadline. Please note that USCIS cannot accept any comments that are hand delivered or couriered. In addition, USCIS cannot accept mailed comments contained on any form of digital media storage devices, such as CDs/DVDs and USB drives.

[1] Available at: https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/litigation_documents/rosario_vs_uscis_order_granting_plaintiffs_motion_for_summary_judgment_and_denying_defendants_motion_for_summary_judgment.pdf

[2] Available at: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/09/09/2019-19125/removal-of-30-day-processing-provision-for-asylum-applicant-related-form-i-765-employment

Make every day Labor Day

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It’s Labor Day in America, a time to celebrate the important labor protections guaranteed to us all. Today, thanks to organized labor, workers by law have a right to various protections, including timely payment, minimum wage, overtime pay, workplace safety, freedoms from harassment and discrimination, and more. Despite these protections, some employers violate these labor rights.

Of particular concern are those violations that constitute labor trafficking—a significant issue that gets far too little attention. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has identified more than 5,000 victims and survivors of labor trafficking. The number of unidentified victims, of course, is much higher. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are more than 20 million victims of labor trafficking worldwide—with about 1.5 million in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

U.S. law defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” (Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 USC § 7102(9)). In other words, it is a situation in which a person is forced to perform labor or services through threats or use of violence, lies, and other forms of coercion. Labor trafficking can happen across international borders, state borders, or even within one city—movement is not required. Both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens may be victims or perpetrators. And, it’s likely touched your life in some way or another—the food you are eating, the house you are living in, the hotel you’ve stayed at, etc.

While U.S. citizens can become victims of trafficking, many non-citizens are particularly vulnerable. For these folks, trafficking can begin or occur in their home countries, along their journey, or once they have arrived in the United States. Because traffickers prey on vulnerabilities, foreign nationals have significant risk factors due to language differences, cultural connections, community ties, resources, unfamiliarity with the law, and immigration status.

Recognizing these vulnerabilities—and the important role victims play in reporting, investigating and leading to punishment of traffickers—U.S. law has made some efforts to help. U.S. legislation provides special non-permanent status (“T nonimmigrant visa/status”) to victims who are in the U.S. on account of severe forms of trafficking and have been helpful to law enforcement in investigating and/or prosecuting traffickers. Providing this form of lawful status gives many victims the courage to confront their trafficker without fear of being deported, allowing for increased investigation and punishment of trafficking. It also provides a crucial path toward ensuring survivors can leave dangerous situations and have resources to recover and move forward after being trafficked.

Yet, the T visa is too rarely utilized. Federal law provides for 5,000 T-1 visas annually. Since its inception, however, that quota has never been reached. This indicates, in part, the difficulty of identifying victims. However, it also indicates the difficulty of getting a T visa approved. In 2018, there were 1,613 T visa applications; however, USCIS approved only 576 that year—about 35 percent.[1] That same year, USCIS denied 300 applications, and the rest remain pending.[2] By comparison, in 2015, USCIS received 1,040 applications and approved more than half.[3]

The current anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy exacerbates the problem. Workers who might otherwise attempt to leave a trafficking situation or report their trafficker may be too fearful to do so. Employers may use such immigration policies to further exploit laborers, banking on the fact that migrant laborers don’t know their rights or the protections offered by law, and citing increased immigration enforcement as a threat. Additionally, amid the push to ramp up the deportation machine, immigration officers may take less care in determining whether someone is a potential victim or witness of trafficking instead of a deportable migrant.

The recent raid in Mississippi reflects this. More than 600 people were taken by immigration officials. There is no automatic screening for trafficking, despite the fact that these folks have a right to seek protections, and likely have important information that could help stop trafficking or other forms of labor exploitation. Nonetheless, the employer is continuing to operate and was not immediately charged, unlike its non-citizen employees.

In our work, The Advocates for Human Rights seeks to support victims of trafficking by strengthening the legal response to trafficking, conducting community outreach, victim identification, and providing legal services and referrals for support to victims. Since our labor trafficking program started about two years ago, we have assisted nearly 50 clients who are victims of severe forms of human trafficking. Luckily, for each of them, the T nonimmigrant visa allows them some measure of protection and a road to recovery.

Unfortunately, however, this path is becoming more fraught. It is now taking about 18 months for cases to be processed—time in which the vulnerable victim of trafficking must often wait far from family and with little support network. The Trump Administration is also making the path more difficult with increased demands for more evidence, denials of requests to waive fees despite statutory authority, protracted decision making, and greater resistance to providing protections.

Moreover, in the anti-immigrant climate, victims that were already fearful of reporting and interacting with the government are all the more fearful due to the harsh stance on immigration. And, with the government less likely to use mechanisms designed to encourage and support reporting (such as Continued Presence and Deferred Action), many victims remain in precarious situations. Unfortunately, while the federal government remains vocal about ending trafficking and supporting victims in theory, the current anti-immigrant posture of the administration has also meant that foreign national trafficking victims are not seeing that in practice.

As we celebrate this Labor Day, we need increased awareness of those who are being denied their labor rights due to labor trafficking, and are eager for the Federal Government to take greater strides towards preventing and punishing labor trafficking while properly supporting victims, regardless of their immigration status.

Lindsey Greising is a staff attorney in The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

[1] https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Reports%20and%20Studies/Immigration%20Forms%20Data/Victims/I914t_visastatistics_fy2019_qtr2.pdf

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

Asylum Under Attack

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The current administration in Washington is waging an all-out war on asylum, which it falsely characterizes as a charade or loophole rather than an essential human right. While the war is focused on the influx of refugees at the southern border who flee violence and chaos in Central America, it threatens to demolish protections for refugees all over the world who come to the United States seeking safety. The Advocates for Human Rights deals every day with the desperate ones whose fates are at issue. Since policy affects real people, it is instructive to examine the government’s anti-asylum initiatives in juxtaposition with just one of the many stories in our case files, which is used with our client’s consent.

Maria was 11 years old and living with her family in Guatemala when a 22-year-old man began preying upon her, inducing her to engage in a sexual relationship with him. Her father forbade her from seeing the man, but he coerced Maria into returning to him by threatening to harm her family if she didn’t. The man kept her locked in a room in his mother’s house.

Having failed in the courts with previous anti-immigration tactics, the U.S. government just launched two new attacks on asylum by executive fiat, with other assaults being planned..

At the age of 14, Maria was forced to marry her abductor. She went to the police in Guatemala, but they told her this was a domestic matter that she should “work out” with her husband. When Maria’s husband found out she had gone to the police, he beat her. As time went on, the beatings continued.

First, the administration announced that there would be a great expansion of the use of the expedited removal process, by which immigration courts and asylum officers are bypassed completely and lower-level immigration officials are allowed to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants with no due process so long as they have not been in the country for two years. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has sharply criticized the expedited removal process, finding that border officials often are biased against asylum claims and fail to take steps necessary to ensure that asylum seekers are protected from arbitrary expedited removal. Nevertheless, the administration has embraced it.

Maria became pregnant and told her husband. He continued to beat her, so badly that she lost the baby. She escaped and hid with a family member, but her husband searched for her relentlessly. With no other escape from her situation, and no possibility of help from her country’s government, Maria embarked on the arduous and dangerous journey through Mexico and across the U.S. border.

A second attack on asylum was the announcement of a new rule excluding people from asylum if they failed to first ask for asylum in a country through which they travelled. While this rule would affect all refugees, it is directed mainly at the Central American refugees who cross through Mexico and Guatemala before reaching the United States.

Non-profit advocacy groups promptly sued, challenging the administration’s third- country rule. Among other grounds, they argued that the rule violates an express Congressional prohibition against relying on the asylum procedures of any country unless we have in place with that country a “safe country” agreement, ensuring their asylum procedures provide an acceptable level of safety for claimants. No such agreement exists with Mexico. (On July 26, the U.S. entered into a purported safe country agreement with Guatemala, even though Guatemala does not come close to meeting the standards for a safe country and was in fact the country from which Maria fled due to the lack of any governmental remedy for the domestic violence that threatened her life.)

On July 24, federal district courts on opposite coasts issued opinions concerning the new rule. U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in the District of Columbia refused to enjoin the rule, essentially on a finding that the advocacy groups had failed to make a factual showing of standing to make their claims. The very same day, however, Judge Jon Tigar of the Northern District of California issued a lengthy opinion enjoining the rule, finding ample evidence that no reasonable asylum process was available in either Mexico or Guatemala. Appeals in both cases seem inevitable.

Maria found her way to The Advocates for Human Rights. Represented by Program Director Sarah Brenes, Maria won asylum. She is now living safely in the United States, where she is finishing high school and hopes to become a police officer.

Either of the latest attacks on asylum might have been used to deport Maria and send her back to her violent husband and a government unwilling to protect her. Can anyone believe that the United States would somehow have benefitted from that?

A humane asylum system is critical if we are to fulfill our legal and moral obligations to offer succor to the world’s most desperate. As many of us have been asking for some time now, what kind of country are we?

-James O’Neal, Board Chair of the Advocates for Human Rights

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Sometimes the Stars Align

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????After two years as an observer in immigration court, it is almost possible to get desensitized to the constant inhumanity of our deportation machinery. Every new executive order that limits the numbers of refugees, allows humans to be caged, deports people without access to a hearing, abolishes long standing grounds for asylum, and sends people back to countries where they face certain death, makes me despair that change will ever come.

As court observers with the Human Rights Defender Project, we observe hearings in immigration court as moral witnesses. We aim to bring transparency and accountability to hearings that have historically taken place out of the public view.  We observe and document to shed light, to motivate ourselves through our informed moral outrage, and ultimately, we aim to help create an immigration system that upholds the dignity of all people and that is built on international principles of human rights.  At times, through the relentless march of five-minute hearings, it can all seem futile.

But sometimes the stars align and the impact is measurable.

Last week I observed a hearing where a person gave up his asylum claim and asked to be deported. Yesterday I posted his bond and he is back living with his good friend and working on his asylum case.

It was the man’s second hearing. He had been given time to find an attorney but explained to the judge that he simply couldn’t afford one.  He asked to be deported, stating that he found prolonged detention at the Sherburne County Jail, the largest ICE detention facility in Minnesota, to be intolerable.

“I don’t like how I am treated there. I can’t stay there any longer.”

The judge, noting the man’s previous statement on record, asked if he feared for his life if he returned to his country of birth. “Yes,” he replied, speaking through the interpreter.  The judge encouraged him to fight for asylum and suggested he request, in writing, a bond hearing. He repeated his hopelessness and his lack of funds. But a friend in the courtroom for the hearing stood and said he would try to help with paperwork to try to support a motion for bond and for asylum.  Both of these things are daunting to do from detention, where communication is costly and onerous, where everything needs to be translated with the help of fellow detainees if one doesn’t have English fluency, and where it is nearly impossible to get ahold of evidence needed to support the case.

The Court Observer Project has a process for referring unique cases for pro bono representation, but there are limited resources to take the cases. The need is vast, the timelines are short, and the available attorneys are stretched thin. I had no idea of the merits of his potential asylum claim, but I felt he had a strong case for bond. He has lived in the United States for nearly twenty years, has a support system, and had no criminal history whatsoever.

I referred the case to the Pro Bono Bond Project, a small but vital part of the collaboration between The Advocates for Human Rights, the Binger Center for New Americans, and Robins Kaplan. A week later, with pro bono counsel from Robins Kaplan at his side, the man appeared for his bond hearing. After hearing his case, the immigration judge set a reasonable bond. His volunteer attorney then made a referral to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit with a rotating fund for criminal and immigration bonds. They have very limited capacity, but almost immediately, Minnesota Freedom Fund responded that it could pay the bond for this case. I’m a volunteer with MFF, so I jumped at the chance to go to the ICE office myself to post the bond.

As I left the Whipple Building that beautiful sunny day, I knew that in this instance someone was gaining a measure of freedom and was having a bit of dignity restored.  After watching countless cases of replete with sorrow and injustice, I took comfort in knowing that sometimes we can make a difference.

By Amy Lange, the Immigration Court Observer Project Coordinator at The Advocates for Human Rights.

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My Dad Is A “Buddhist Dictator”?

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As a child, author Rosalyn Park was also told to “go back” to where she came from. 

When President Trump recently tweeted that Rep. Ilhan Omar (my representative) and three other congresswomen of color should “go back” to where they came from, empowering others to parrot him, I felt that hate personally. Those are words that I, and so many others, hear because we’re “different.” It reminded me of the racism my dad faced when he first came here and reinforced that, even though discrimination is illegal, it’s up to each of us to respect and make that a reality.

My dad immigrated to the United States more than 50 years ago from South Korea. He came for the “American Dream.” Carrying a suitcase containing his beloved judo uniform, he hoped for a good education and a new life – not unlike many of the immigrants who come to the U.S. today. He arrived with little resources: just $20 and an alarm clock in his pocket. My dad was fortunate that the university kindly let him stay in a basement office of the Dairy Science Building. He didn’t have any blankets, so he used his judo uniform as a blanket. For six months, all he could afford to eat was peanut butter sandwiches.

Dad Pic 2

 

A fellow student approached my dad with a request. He was going to serve in Vietnam and wanted to hire my dad for judo lessons. As poor as my dad was, he refused payment. My dad told him, “This country welcomed me in, and I want to give back for what the United States has done for me.” He agreed to teach the classes for free and open it up to interested students.

 

 

Three days before my dad’s first judo class, the local news ran a story about a woman with a judo black belt who fended off three attackers. The story received a lot of attention. When my dad arrived at the gym, he found 200 students waiting to learn judo. He didn’t turn any of them away. Instead, he divided them into two classes a night and taught six nights a week on top of his full-time student schedule. He was so tired some nights, he would get nosebleeds or come close to fainting. Still, he refused to take any money and continued teaching.

The local paper found out about his judo classes and ran a story about my dad. But it wasn’t to recognize him for volunteering his time and skills. Instead, they called him the “Buddhist Dictator” and accused him of using judo to convert students to Buddhism (my dad is Catholic, by the way). It was classic racism – uninformed, prejudiced, and intolerant of those who are “different.”

Dad judo

My dad’s experience happened a long time ago in the 1960s. But racism does not end with time. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, other kids told me to “go back to where I came from.” This confused and crushed me. I was born in Minnesota. The only language I spoke was English. This was my country. Where was I supposed to go? What really hurt was how I was treated differently from our classmate, “Christine.” Like me, “Christine’s” parents immigrated to the U.S, but from Western Europe. She never got called names like “chink” or was told to “go home.” The only difference I could see between us was that she had brown hair and blue eyes. I am Asian.

My dad earned his Ph.D., worked 27 years at the same company, and became a U.S. citizen. But racism doesn’t go away with degrees, a job, or citizenship. And my own personal experience tells me racism doesn’t go away with years or generations. Racism lives because people are fearful or ignorant about who or what is different from them. And to me and others who are “different,” that translates into hatred.

Time does not defeat racism. People do. It’s 2019. And it’s time for each of us to stand up against racism and stand up for human rights.

To learn more about The Advocates for Human Rights’ work or to volunteer, visit: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/volunteer

By Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program.

 

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Turkey in Danger of Returning to the Death Penalty

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Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

On the heels of the July 2016 attempted coup, Turkish officials expressed their intention to reinstate the death penalty for “child killers” and terrorists. The Deputy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) threatened that the government would introduce a bill calling for the execution of rebel soldiers involved in the coup. President Erdogan stated that he would approve any legislation brought forth by the government to restore the death penalty. The following month, far-right leader of the Great Unity Party, Mustafa Destici, announced that a proposal to reinstate the death penalty would be introduced to Turkey’s parliament in October of that year.

Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2004 and made abolition permanent in March 2006 when it ratified the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (OP2-ICCPR). The Protocol states that “[n]o one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed” and “[e]ach State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.” OP2-ICCPR does not authorize a State Party to subsequently withdraw ratification.

Reinstating the death penalty contradicts Turkey’s obligation to abolish capital punishment as a State Party to OP2-ICCPR. What’s deeply troubling is not just that Turkey would renege on its international human rights obligations and resume the use of a cruel and dehumanizing penalty, but that the Turkish government has major motivation to do so in an effort to silence its political opposition and marginalized groups.

Remember how Turkish officials pushed to assign the death penalty specifically to “terrorists” in the wake of the attempted coup in 2016? Terrorist, in this context, seems to be code for dissident. Since 2016, the Turkish Government has used counter-terrorism efforts as a means of cracking down on political opposition. Charges of “terrorism,” “terrorist sympathy,” and “terrorist propaganda” are levied against journalists, academics, and activists who oppose the Turkish Government’s actions and policies. In addition to stifling opposition voices, the government regularly uses charges of terrorism to further persecute the already vulnerable Kurdish community. The Turkish government has historically targeted the Kurdish people; Turkish nationalism promotes both the assimilation and the elimination of non-Turkish minority groups, such as Kurds and Armenians.

In the defense of human rights, it is critical that we say the quiet part out loud: if Turkey reinstates the death penalty under the pretext of using it as a means to combat vaguely defined “terrorism,” Turkish authorities will wield it unjustly to permanently rid Turkish authorities of political opponents. As Turkey’s government institutions are characterized by weak separation of powers, compromising the independence of the judiciary, reinstatement of the death penalty would place even more power in the hands of the executive branch. Reinstatement of the death penalty is a threat not only to journalists and human rights defenders, but also to the Kurdish community, which already faces ethnically motivated persecution and violence at the hands of the Turkish state.

The Advocates for Human Rights frequently collaborates with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, serving on its Steering Committee and leading the Coalition’s advocacy at the United Nations. The UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a mechanism during which each nation reports on the state of human rights within its jurisdiction and receives recommendations from its peers—other nations around the world. It is an opportunity for The Advocates and other civil society organizations to lobby UN member states on issues like the death penalty. Often we urge governments to adopt best practices and ratify treaties, usually in response to reports of human rights violations.

Turkey’s third UPR is scheduled for January 28, 2020. Turkey has signed and ratified the relevant treaties, the death penalty has been struck from the law. To defend the Turkish people’s right to life, freedom of opinion, and freedom of expression, The Advocates will lobby governments to press the Turkish Government to make further commitments to uphold the country’s international human rights obligations.

As an intern in the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights, my work focuses on preparing for and evaluating the success of our lobbying efforts at the UN. Researching the death penalty in Turkey feels like a departure from the norm; past lobbying efforts have been successful and the death penalty was abolished officially, and yet the threat remains. In instances like these, The Advocates and its partners recognize how vital it is to act and advocate proactively to prevent future human rights violations. It is a reminder that even in countries and regions where we can celebrate progress, the protection and maintenance of human rights is ongoing and critical work, whether across the globe or in our own backyards.

You have the power to take action in the face of human rights violations. Learn what you can do to assist The Advocates for Human Rights in our work here. Learn more about our work to end the death penalty here.

By Grace Curtiss, rising junior at the University of Minnesota and summer 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program. 

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A Delightful Evening at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner

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Intern Jessica Hammond with Andrés Cediel, the recipient of The Advocates’ 2019 Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award

The scene that unfolded on the evening of June 20, 2019 had been in preparation for months. Excitement filled the air as staffers and volunteers, each assigned a list of duties to fulfill, quickly moved past each other in The Depot – a Minneapolis historic venue chosen as the site for the 2019 Human Rights Awards Dinner and, from what I learnt that evening, a former train station serving as a stopping point for the Orphan Trains.

Our keynote speaker, guest of honor, and recipient of the 2019 Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award, Andrés Cediel, gave an engaging speech. His qualifications as professor of visual journalism at the University of California Berkeley, investigative journalist, and accomplished documentarian had the guests attentively following along as he took us down his trail of professional experiences. He opened his speech with a statement acknowledging the lands on which we were, paying respect to the Anishinaabe people as traditional stewards of the land and recognizing the relationship that continues to exist between them and their traditional territories. He reminded attendees of the history of Indigenous people in Minnesota, some of whom had been held in detention camps at Fort Snelling, an area not far from where we sat.

Orphan Trains

Cediel then segued into a discussion about the Orphan Trains in the late 1800s. Orphan trains? I asked myself while trying to catch his explanation of their presence in Minneapolis. I searched the room of the almost 700 dinner guests – mainly legal professionals, advocates, and donors from varying professions – to find that most shared the same look of curiosity. It turned to horror when we learned about the system in which an estimated 150,000-250,000 allegedly orphaned and abandoned children from the East Coast were relocated to new homes in Minnesota and across the American Plains. Sadly, the Milwaukee Road Depot building had also once been a station where children were displayed and given away. Essentially, they were placed on auction blocks and sold to the highest bidder – some of whom, having ill motives, bought them as cheap farm laborers, partaking in what we’d now recognize as labor trafficking. Despicable, I thought. Yet I appreciated the progress made from that dark part of America’s history to now where such trains couldn’t be fathomed.

Human Rights Violations at Home

Cediel pointed out that human rights violations take place everywhere, including here at home. This is illustrated in his documentary films “Rape on the Night Shift,” “Trafficked in America,” and “Rape in the Fields,” which were featured in the PBS Frontline Series and which he created with his collaborator Daffodil Altan. [As an aside, earlier in the week the first two films had been the focus of two very well attended Continuing Legal Education events facilitated by The Advocates.] Cediel’s film, “Rape on the Night Shift,” documents the story of custodial workers sexually assaulted by their supervisor. Cediel told us of the heavy emotions he experienced from listening to the women’s stories and of secondhand trauma – a parting gift I suppose would be inevitable in his line of work. I felt similar emotions watching the films and again listening to his speech.

Award Recipients of the Evening 

But the night was also about other awards – the Volunteer Awards recognize the importance of volunteers to The Advocates’ work and certain outstanding volunteers in particular. Staff members of The Advocates took their turn on stage to distribute awards to volunteers who had made great contributions to the Advocates. Among the list of recipients were Dr. Charlayne Myers and Steve Woldum, Charles Weed, Judi Corradi, Zonta Club of Minneapolis, Alena Levina, and the Somali 92 Team. The Somali 92 team is a collection of lawyers, paralegals, and other staff who represented deportees on a December 2017 Customs and Immigration Enforcement chartered flight that had gone horribly wrong.

Following this was the announcement that Minneapolis-based Women at the Court House (WATCH), an organization that works to make the justice system more effective and responsive for victimized women and children in domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking cases, would become part of The Advocates’ Women’s Rights program. I smiled to hear the news, which I think is a positive step for the human rights work here in Minnesota and beyond.

Funding for The Advocates

The evening would not have been complete without professional auctioneer and award recipient, Pat Brenna, who, with great ease and skill, drew enthusiasm and laughter from guests as she tugged at their purse strings to fund the work of The Advocates. It was a great success! Many guests happily waved their donation envelopes in the air at Pat’s call for takers to fund projects ranging in value from $100 to $10,000. Pat, never shy, informed guests of The Advocates’ goal to raise $270,000 from the event to help fund The Advocates’ various human rights projects. And, from the looks of the unofficial numbers, that announcement paid off – and yes, that pun was intended.

Earlier in the evening there had been a silent auction. Many items were auctioned off – imported wines rich in vibrant flavor and aromatic notes guaranteeing to leave the consumer more than satisfied, trips abroad including accommodations for a stay in a beautiful home in Italy, and fine hand-made jewelry and clothing among many other tempting indulgences for the guests. All in all, The Advocates raised close to $300,000 from this year’s event – a record-setting amount in the 15+ year history since this event has been held.

Lingering Thoughts

Just as I, staffers, and volunteers made a concerted effort in setting up for the event, we also pitched in during the take-down process. I watched as guests, gleaming with smiles and uttering thank-yous to members of The Advocates, filed out of The Depot. Despite my tired eyes caused by the toll of the day’s activities, I reflected on the sentiment that Andrés Cediel departed onto us during his keynote address. He stated, as Martin Luther King Jr. had popularized, that

“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

While Cediel believes this to be true – that good ultimately prevails despite the evil and tragedy around us – he added that it requires a proactive effort made every day by people who care about human rights and dignity. And this is exactly what The Advocates do. During my time with The Advocates, I have had the pleasure of joining this effort at the international level, where The Advocates fight for justice and to bring to surface human rights violations happening around the world.

Though The Advocates has had many victories, Cediel reminds us that the fight for good is an ongoing process. And with the continued support from staff members, volunteers, interns, and community donors, I believe that The Advocates will be able to remain in this fight to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

To learn more on how to be a guest or a sponsor for The Advocates’ Human Rights Award Dinner, please visit the link at: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/hrad.

By Jessica Hammond, a summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program and second-year law student at the University of Windsor.

 

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Capital punishment: victims and their families deserve better

WDADP 2019 posterIn announcing the Justice Department’s decision to resume executions for people sentenced to death under federal law last Thursday, Attorney General William Barr said, “We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Barr’s words reflect a common misunderstanding about justice and the interests of family members of people who have been killed in horrific crimes.

People often assume that after execution, family members will be able to “move on” or achieve some kind of “closure.” But not all family members share those sentiments. Research confirms that often after the execution family members realize that state-sanctioned killing did not bring them peace. In fact, prosecutors and officials like Barr who want to seem “tough on crime” too often use victims and their family members as pawns.

Tsarnaev jurors kept in the dark about family members’ wishes

One of the people most recently sentenced to death under federal law was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of crimes related to the Boston Marathon bombing. Bill and Denise Richard, whose 8-year-old son Martin was one of three people killed near the finish line, had urged federal authorities not to pursue the death penalty for Tsarnaev:

We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day. As long as the defendant is in the spotlight, we have no choice but to live a story told on his terms, not ours. The minute the defendant fades from our newspapers and TV screens is the minute we begin the process of rebuilding our lives and our family.

The sister of police officer Sean Collier, another person Tsarnaev and his brother killed, also spoke out against the death penalty, as did two people who lost limbs in the bombing.

Yet despite these sentiments, prosecutors kept the Tsarnaev jury in the dark. When Bill Richard delivered his victim impact statement to the jury, he was not allowed to disclose his opposition to the death penalty.

Prosecutors not only benefit from but also perpetuate the misplaced assumption that all family members of victims want the death penalty. At least one juror in the Tsarnaev trial, Kevan Fagan, said knowing the Richards’ views probably would have changed his vote at the sentencing phase.

Victims’ families are organizing against the death penalty

Victims’ family members like Bill and Denise Richard who oppose the death penalty are often marginalized and mistreated in the criminal justice system. Renny Cushing, who opposed the death penalty long before his father’s murder, recognized that the structures that are designed to benefit victims and survivors are often reserved for people who support capital punishment:

These hard-won benefits are too often unavailable to victims if they oppose the death penalty. Whether this is because victim’s advocacy offices operate under the auspices of the prosecutor or because an assumption exists among advocates that all family members of murder victims will want the perpetrator executed, the result is the same. Too often, family members who oppose the death penalty are silenced, marginalized, and abandoned, even by the people who are theoretically charged with helping them.

(Earlier this year Cushing, who now serves in the New Hampshire legislature, successfully pushed for that state’s repeal of the death penalty.)

Several organizations organized by and for the families of murder victims are speaking out against the death penalty. Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, an organization of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, has a mission to challenge the assumption that all families of murder victims support the death penalty. MVFHR plays an important role in educating the public and amplifying the voices of victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty, and its website includes a gallery of stories from victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty. Similarly, murder victim family members lead an organization called Journey of Hope . . . From Violence to Healing, a group that conducts public education speaking tours to address alternatives to the death penalty.  They testify side by side with family members of people on death row, family members of people who have been executed, and people who have been exonerated from death row.

Victims’ family members are better off without the death penalty

The President of Journey of Hope, Bill Pelke, co-founded the organization after four teenage girls murdered his grandmother. Pelke originally supported the death penalty for Paula Cooper, who was characterized as the girls’ ring-leader. But he “went through a spiritual transformation in 1986 after praying for love and compassion for Paula Cooper and her family.” He then championed an international crusade and ultimately helped get Cooper’s sentence commuted from death to sixty years in prison. In Pelke’s words, “The death penalty has absolutely nothing to do with healing. [It] just continues the cycle of violence and creates more murder victims family members. We become what we hate.  We become killers.” Research backs up his words.

Dr. Marilyn Armour at the University of Texas and Dr. Mark Umbreit at the University of Minnesota conducted research comparing outcomes for family members of murder victims in Minnesota (which does not have the death penalty) and Texas (which does). Their interviews with family members of murder victims demonstrated that the death penalty results in more negative outcomes:

Although the [death penalty] is promulgated as the ultimate justice, this Study found that the critical dynamic was the control survivors felt they had over the process of getting to the end. In Minnesota, survivors had greater control, likely because the appeals process was successful, predictable, and completed within two years after conviction; whereas, the finality of the appeals process in Texas was drawn out, elusive, delayed, and unpredictable. It generated layers of injustice, powerlessness, and in some instances, despair. Although the grief and sorrow remained high for Minnesotans, no longer having to deal with the murderer, his outcome, or the criminal justice system allowed survivors’ control and energy to be put into the present to be used for personal healing.

These conclusions echo and reinforce the reasons the Richards gave in asking that prosecutors not seek the death penalty for Tsarnaev.

A University of Minnesota study found that just 2.5% of family members reported achieving closure after the execution of the perpetrator, while 20.1% said the execution did not help them heal. Lula Redmond, a therapist who works with victims’ family members in Florida, observed: “More often than not, families of murder victims do not experience the relief they expected to feel at the execution. Taking a life doesn’t fill that void, but it’s generally not until after the execution that families realize this.”

Family members of murder victims deserve support and assistance.

As studies confirm, capital punishment is no panacea to “heal” family members of murder victims. Rather, true healing comes through support, assistance, and restorative justice. Instead of plowing scarce federal and state funds into costly death penalty cases, we would better spend our dollars on improving the scope and quality of victim services. Victoria Coward, whose son Tyler was murdered in 2007, remarked:

If we are serious about helping surviving victims — all of us — we need to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that the death penalty is given in fewer than 1 percent of cases, yet it sucks up millions and millions of dollars that could be put toward crime prevention or victims’ services. What I wouldn’t give for a tiny slice of those millions to give my grieving daughters some professional help to process the death of their brother.

Take action

On July 25, the same day as Barr’s announcement, Representative Ayanna Pressley introduced H.R. 4052, a bill to prohibit imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law. The bill currently has 12 cosponsors, including independent Rep. Justin Amash.

In introducing the bill, Rep. Pressley said, “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now and I am proud to introduce a bill that completely abolishes the use of capital punishment as a punitive measure. The cruelty is the point – this is by design.”

Encourage your Representative in Washington to cosponsor H.R. 4052 and contact your Senators and ask them to sponsor a companion bill in the Senate. If you live in a state that still has the death penalty, invite speakers from MVFHR, Journey of Hope, or Witness to Innocence to meet with your state elected officials.

The Advocates for Human Rights is proud to join with Journey of Hope, MVFHR, and Witness to Innocence as a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Learn more about our work to abolish the death penalty here.

By Amy Bergquist. Amy is a Senior Staff Attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and she currently serves as Vice President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

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Understanding the Expansion of Expedited Removal

statue 2 web largeThe long-expected announcement of the expansion of expedited removal authority throughout the United States, just a week after the administration rewrote the rules on establishing a credible fear of persecution or torture, is like a 1-2 punch for due process and the right to seek asylum.

Expedited removal, a product of the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, gives low-level immigration officials the power of judge, jury, and executioner of deportation orders. This is particularly disturbing given the record of misconduct and lack of accountability that permeates federal immigration enforcement. Expedited removal authorizes immigration officers to summarily arrest, detain, and deport people believed to be in violation of two provisions of immigration laws. The American Immigration Council has a good primer on expedited removal here.

These provisions – INA 212(a)(6)(C) and (a)(7) – render people “inadmissible” to the United States based on misrepresentation or failure to have required documents for entry.

No actual proof of these violations is needed. There’s no appeal. The penalty: a five-year bar to returning to the United States on a visa.

These provisions are slippery creatures. Here’s how these laws work in practice.

A political dissident escapes their country after spending weeks in jail for attending a political rally. They have a visitor visa to the United States, granted to them so they can travel to this country for a conference of democracy activists, so they buy a plane ticket and head for safety. When they finally arrive at the U.S. airport, exhausted from a long flight and worn out after weeks of imprisonment and torture, they present their lawfully obtained visa to the immigration official. But, when they tell the officer that they want asylum, they invalidate their visitor visa because they say they want asylum, not just to visit. They have violated INA 212(a)(6)(C). Immigration officials arrest, detain, and interrogate them. They sit for hours without food or access to a phone. An immigration agent with little training on the political situation unfolding in this far-flung nation has the power to return them on the spot. No judge. No lawyer. No hearing.

Years ago, one of our volunteer attorneys called for help finding out what had happened to friend’s mother. The elderly grandmother had come to the U.S. for her annual visit. Her flight arrived, but she never came out of immigration control. Days later the woman made contact with her frantic children. She had been deported under the expedited removal laws. Apparently immigration officials saw other travelers with a similar last name on the flight who did not have visas. They accused her of being in cahoots with them. Eventually, after spending the night in an interrogation room at the airport, she was sent home with an expedited removal order. Five years of missed school plays and family celebrations were the result.

For years this extraordinary authority was limited to people arriving at airports and sea ports. Then the power expanded to people found within 100 miles of a U.S. border who couldn’t prove they had been in the country at least 14 days. (For my Minnesota friends, that meant that a visit to the North Shore could result in being pulled over, questioned by Border Patrol, and followed to your campsite – at least if you don’t “look Minnesotan” – as we documented in our 2014 report on immigration in Minnesota).

Now the Department of Homeland Security has expanded this sweeping power with plans to apply it to anyone, anywhere in the United States who cannot prove they have been here at least two years. Having lawful immigration status – or even being a U.S. citizen – is no guarantee that you won’t be questioned about your status or your documents. According to an NPR report, hundreds of U.S. citizens each year face detention and deportation. (And, let’s not forget, the United States has engaged in mass deportation of U.S. citizens to Mexico during the Depression, when “up to 1.8 million people of Mexican descent – most of them American-born – were rounded up in informal raids and deported in an effort to reserve jobs for white people.”)

The law treats people at the border differently. And bit by bit the “border” has expanded so that race-based traffic stops, document checks on trains and buses travelling in the northern part of the country, and roadblock checkpoints throughout the southwest all have become routine.

But the immigration law cannot override foundational constitutional protections against arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, disappearance, and torture.

So what should people do?

#1 Know your rights. Throughout the past weeks, as threatened ICE raids put communities on high alert, we saw examples of how making ICE play by the rules works to protect people. If you want a good overview of the constitutional limits on search and seizure, check out ICE’s own training on the Fourth Amendment. (Thanks Mijente and Detention Watch Network for forcing ICE to turn over it’s 2017 Operation Mega documents).

You have the right to remain silent. Immigration officials like to rely on people’s admissions of unlawful presence.

You have the right to refuse to let ICE into your home unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. ICE likes to show up with administrative warrants of arrest or removal, which are not enough to authorize them to enter your home.

Remember that even the draconian expedited removal procedures have a review process. People who fear persecution or torture have a right to a review of their claim. People who claim U.S. citizenship, lawful permanent residence, or refugee or asylum status have a right to a “claimed status review” before being deported under expedited removal laws.

#2 Plan ahead. You don’t have to carry a giant folder of documents with you, but gathering your important papers together and storing them in a safe place where a trusted person can access them is a smart move. Help people who may have trouble explaining or even knowing their status know what to do if ICE asks them questions.

#3 Sue. Seriously. Immigrant rights organizations around the country are planning litigation, but individuals whose rights are violated need to step forward. Violations need to be documented and accountability demanded.

#4 Speak out. The expansion of expedited removal was announced in the Federal Register on July 23, 2019. Public comments will be taken for 90 days. You may submit comments, identified by Docket Number DHS-2019-0036 using the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal at https://www.regulations.gov.

Call your congressional representatives at 202-224-3121 and ask them to restore due process by repealing the expedited removal laws.

By Michele Garnett McKenzie, Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights

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The “Commission on Unalienable Rights” has No Place in International Human Rights Dialogue

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Eleanor Roosevelt and United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text. (Unknown – Franklin D Roosevelt Library website)

The Advocates for Human Rights is strongly opposed to the U.S. Department of State’s recently announced “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” As an organization committed to implementing international human rights standards, we are deeply concerned about the many legal, moral, and philosophical problems with the Commission, its mandate, and its makeup. We have joined with other U.S. human rights leaders in sending Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a letter calling for the Commission to be immediately disbanded. (Read the full text of the joint letter here.)  With this letter, we also express  our collective desire to refocus this administration on solving some of the human rights violations it has fueled through its reactionary policies on issues ranging from immigration, asylum, freedom of religion, and myriad due process and rule of law issues.

We remain focused on fighting these human rights violations and holding our government accountable for the harms it is inflicting by its hateful, xenophobic policies and its failures to protect vulnerable people in this country, on our borders, and around the world.

The United States is scheduled to be reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in May 2020 under its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. The UPR process involves an evaluation of the U.S. government’s compliance with the full range of internationally recognized human rights outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a broad review that is based on the U.S. membership in the United Nations and is not focused on specific treaty obligations.

This review will be an opportunity to expose systematic violations of the rights of refugees, the rights of asylum seekers, and women’s right to be free from violence. The UPR process will highlight the U.S. government’s failure to protect the rights of religious minorities, the failure to ensure that all people live without discrimination, and the failure to respect the rule of law. These and many other violations will be exposed when the U.S. States government’s actions are evaluated by its peers in the Human Rights Council. The U.S. government will be called on to explain its human rights practices.

That’s a tall order for an administration that seems dedicated to reneging on our obligations at every opportunity: protecting perpetrators of violence against women; telling U.S. citizens to leave if they don’t like it here; attacking the press as enemies of the people; undermining the judiciary and the rule of law; and working to roll back guarantees of access to health care. So it is no surprise that the administration is trying to change the rules before it has to step into the spotlight.

Because that’s what this “Commission on Unalienable Rights” is all about. If we don’t like the rules, we will write new ones. And this administration has repeatedly made clear that it is prepared to violate any rule that gives those at the margins of power a voice or any rule that protects opportunities for diverse communities to live with dignity.

But human rights standards and the rule of law are stronger than this administration’s attempt to undermine them. We are better than we were at the end of World War II when there were no institutions to challenge the human rights violations perpetrated by dictators and those who model their policies after them. Human rights are not merely documents. They reflect the core values of our own Constitution and the decades of jurisprudence strengthening anti-discrimination laws that have sought to ensure that these core values can be enjoyed by all. No administration is above the law and we will continue to use all available mechanisms to hold our own government accountable for its bad practices.

By Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights 

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New Asylum Bar Takes Effect

Statue of Liberty_erik-lindgren-unsplashA new regulation by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice seeks to bar asylum to people who enter or attempt to enter the United States at the southern border if they do not first apply for asylum in at least one other country through which they traveled.  The Interim Final Rule published July 16 took immediate effect and allows only 30 days for public comment.

The new asylum bar is the latest in a series of actions designed to limit access to protection for refugees. The federal government has engineered a crisis at the southern border by starving the system of adjudicatory resources while exponentially expanding the capacity to detain people arriving in search of protection from persecution or torture. The government has used this engineered crisis to change unilaterally and without debate asylum eligibility rules.

The Advocates for Human Rights is deeply concerned about this restriction on the fundamental human right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. We are reviewing the regulation and monitoring its impact on our clients. Volunteer attorneys should watch for practice guidance and should reach out to The Advocates’ staff or consulting attorneys with questions.

What does the new rule do?

The new rule establishes a new mandatory bar to asylum for people who enter or attempt to enter the United States across the southern border if they did not apply for protection from persecution or torture in at least one third country through which they transited on their way to the United States.

Who does the rule apply to?

The new rule applies to anyone who enters or attempts to enter the United States at the southern border on or after Tuesday, July 16, 2019. This rule does not affect people who entered before July 16, 2019, or who enter or attempt to enter at other ports of entry.

Are there exceptions to the new rule?

There is a very limited exception for people who demonstrate that they are a victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons.

How can I help?

Speak out.

Comments to this rule, identified by EOIR Docket No. 19-0504, may be submitted via the Federal eRulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov.

Call your congressional representatives at 202-224-3121 to ask them to protect the right to seek and enjoy asylum.

Volunteer.

We urgently need attorneys to represent asylum seekers. No immigration law experience is needed. You will get the training and support you need. Click here to get started.

Interpreters and translators make representation possible. Click here to help.

Human rights monitors are needed to observe immigration court hearings. Click here to learn more.

Donate.

The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal help to more than 1000 victims of human rights abuses, including asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and people in detention. We need your help now more than ever. Please click here to give.

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Holding Abusive Employers Accountable

The Advocates is celebrating a victory at the state legislature this year! We are part of a coalition fighting to protect workers’ rights that helped pass a new law criminalizing wage theft.

Labor trafficking is closely linked to labor exploitation such as wage theft or dangerous working conditions. In certain industries, exploitative businesses routinely refuse to pay workers what they are legally owed, avoiding liability through subcontracting, misclassifying employees, and threatening retaliation if anyone complains. Traffickers take advantage of this environment of impunity, coupling exploitation with coercion and control that keeps their victims trapped, unable to stop working.

Press conference introducting wage theft bill 2

A key component of a system to prevent and identify labor trafficking is a robust response to labor exploitation, eliminating the environment where traffickers can operate undetected. As The Advocates discovered in our report Asking the Right Questions, our system for responding to labor exploitation was not doing enough to combat abusive employers.

The Wage Theft Coalition was formed to end this environment of impunity and this spring worked with Representative Tim Mahoney to craft legislation that corrects some of the shortfalls of current laws. Many hearings and negotiations later, the bill passed and Minnesota now has one of the strongest wage theft laws in the country.

Hearing on wage theft bill

Some highlights of the new law:

  • Wage theft can now be criminally prosecuted like all other theft. If an employer steals from an employee, they can face up to 20 years in prison. Even small amounts, like a withheld last paycheck, can trigger jail time and fines.
  • Retaliation against employees for making a complaint is specifically prohibited and subject to fines of up to $3000 per act.
  • The Department of Labor has expanded investigatory powers and the clear legal authority to collect all wages owed, not just minimum wage or overtime.
  • Workers must be provided notices when hired that list all the details of their pay including any deductions, as well as more detailed earnings statements with each paycheck.
  • Workers have a substantive rights to the payment of all wages and commissions on a regular pay day.Press conference introducting wage theft bill

Senior Researcher Madeline Lohman testifies before the MN Senate Jobs Committee on the link between labor trafficking and wage theft. She called for strengthening the current bill, SF 1816. Here are some key things she presented to the Committee:

Enhanced criminal and civil penalties for wage theft can help deter traffickers. I welcome Senator Pratt’s creation of a gross misdemeanor for wage theft, but would encourage the creation of felony wage theft provisions to allow prosecutors to match the gravity of the crime. Labor traffickers steal tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars from their victims. In no other context is a theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars a gross misdemeanor and not a felony; it should not be one in the workplace.

Labor trafficking is a serious crime that inflicts lasting harm on its victims, undermines legitimate business, and imposes costs on all of us. We have an opportunity today to strengthen Minnesota’s response to this egregious human rights abuse. Please continue to strengthen the penalties against employers that commit wage theft so that traffickers can no longer operate with impunity.

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Senior Researcher Madeline Lohman testifying before the MN Senate Jobs Committee

Learn more about the new law here.

Thank you to everyone who supported these efforts and we look forward to continuing to improve Minnesota’s protections for workers and response to labor trafficking and exploitation!

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Take Advantage of Volunteer Opportunities with The Advocates This Week

volunteerFor more than five years, we have seen children and families fleeing for their lives seeking safety in the United States. They face increasing challenges to receiving due process and navigating the asylum system. Yet many have found their way to Minnesota, with hopes of finding legal services, language access, and a welcoming community. By engaging pro bono attorneys and other volunteers, The Advocates for Human Rights is the largest provider of free legal services to low-income asylum seekers in the Upper Midwest. You can get directly involved in supporting asylum seekers in Minnesota.If you have legal or language skills, you can volunteer by taking a pro bono case, assisting with interpreting and translating, or by staffing the National Asylum Helpline.
60787894_10157094501063815_5749581936431464448_n (1).pngOur annual interpreter training is tonight from 5-7 pm. Info and registration are available on our website: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/annual_interpreter_training.html
A general volunteer information session is on Wednesday, June 26: http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/volunteer_orientation_4.html Attorneys can register
Attorneys can register to receive more information about providing pro bono services: ttp://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/asylumattorneys
If you are a community member interested in welcoming asylum seekers to our communities, consider attending the next Asylum Support Network meeting on Thursday, June 27 from 12:00 PM to 1:30 PM (CDT) at the North Regional Library (1315 Lowry Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55411). The topic will be Asylum Seeker Sponsorship. Katharine Gordon, as the Pro Bono Coordinator for Al Otro Lado, works with people who are in immigration detention throughout the country and who might have a better chance of being released on their own recognizance if they had a sponsor and network of community support. While Al Otro Lado has worked mostly with people who are detainees, sometimes sponsorship situations fall through once a person is released, and at that time folks may look to a wide variety of alternate sponsors throughout the country. Katharine has facilitated such sponsorships here in the Twin Cities. Come join us and learn what the different levels of sponsorship are and how you can be involved in extending hospitality and support to newly arrived asylum seekers.

2019 Human Rights Awards Dinner Volunteer Awards Recipients

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The 2019 Human Rights Awards Dinner took place on Thursday, June 20 in order that we might celebrate the work of our organization and the contributions of the volunteers who make this work possible.

We all have a role in achieving respect for human rights around the world. For all of our work we rely on the expertise and commitment of volunteers. They represent asylum seekers and ensure laws and policies reflect human rights principles. They research and write reports and provide interpretation and translation services. They testify and submit statements to the United Nations and other international bodies. They facilitate trainings and serve as court observers. They welcome visitors and clients and assist with office work.

Volunteers are integral to our success. They expand our impact and build the global human rights movement. Thank you for helping us thank them. Please see below for more information on this years’ amazing volunteers!

Pat Brenna

Pat Brenna’s creativity in using her skills to support human rights is an inspiration. Pat is a business development consultant as well as a benefit fundraising auctioneer. For the last 11 years, Pat has designed and led the fundraising efforts at the Human Rights Awards Dinner, helping The Advocates raise essential funds to support our work. As human rights activist and actor Mike Farrell remarked about her work at the 2012 Awards Dinner, Pat is relentless. Before Pat brought her expertise to The Advocates, our awards dinners brought together hundreds of people for a fun evening with amazing award winners. There was no opportunity at the event itself for the assembled friends to financially support The Advocates’ work. Pat helped The Advocates see the fundraising opportunity and over the years the Fund-the-Need presentation has become a favorite part of the evening. Pat is currently business development director at Brainier Solutions, a developer of learning management systems for businesses and nonprofits.


Charles Weed

Whenever anyone seeks out information about The Advocates for Human Rights, they see Charles Weed’s tremendous contribution to our work. Charles is our website guru. He designed The Advocates’ first website in the 1990s and has maintained it pro bono for over 20 years. Charles lends his expertise to The Advocates on nights and weekends, through weekly maintenance, regular updates, and a couple of complete overhauls (including one in progress now). Charles is a software designer for Urban Planet Software in St. Paul. The Advocates is grateful to Urban Planet as well; they help keep our website up to date by sharing newly developed modules and tools when they become available through their work. Charles, for his part, approaches his work for The Advocates with patience and grace. Over these many years, he has helped us balance what we think we need with what we really do need, and has worked tirelessly with staff and interns to keep the site working reliably.


Judy Corradi

Judy Corradi has been a volunteer with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program for many years. She first started volunteering in the office and helping with a variety of research projects. In 2018 Judy traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as a member of our UN advocacy team. She jumped in right away and helped make contacts with delegates to the Human Rights Council and then organized meetings with them. Judy joined The Advocates at the UN again in 2019. She helped to prepare and present statements to the UN Human Rights Council about the death penalty and the status of human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She also testified at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women about challenges
facing women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Judy’s remarkable research, writing, and presentations positively impact human rights around the world. We are very grateful that she shares her skills with us. Judy is a retired financial industry professional, having spent 38 years in the commercial insurance sector. She is also involved with a number of other local organizations, including Women’s March Minnesota, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Minnesota DFL. In her free time, she serves as an ESL tutor with Language Central.


Alena Levina

Alena Levina has served as a volunteer with The Advocates for several years, translating and interpreting between Russian and English. Originally from Belarus, Alena has used her native Russian language skills to facilitate the extensive work of The Advocates in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. The Women’s Program provides analysis and commentary on laws addressing violence against women. Alena has translated those laws from Russian into English, and then translated back into Russian the advice and documentation from The Advocates. Alena’s awareness of the subtleties and nuances of the Russian language helps ensure the effectiveness of The Advocates’ work. Alena’s work isn’t limited to translation. She also served as an interpreter when our International Justice Program hosted a Russian-speaking group of LGBTI activists. Alena ensured that the group felt welcome during its visit to Minnesota. The Advocates is deeply grateful for Alena’s unique contributions to human rights work. Alena, in turn, is “honored” by this work. “It takes my breath away. The more I work with The Advocates, the more I realize that when we all come together, that’s when change happens. That’s why I do this.”


Dr. Charlayne Meyers and Steve Woldum

Long-time friends and neighbors Char Myers and Steve Woldum volunteer together on Mondays in The Advocates’ development office. They hand-address event invitations, write notes, and make calls to thank donors. They also file the many papers that flow through the office, and generally do whatever is needed. And they do it all with so much positive energy that we often receive thank you calls for their thank you calls. One donor was so appreciative of receiving a call that wasn’t a request for money that he made an additional donation! The behind the-scenes support they provide to the organization is invaluable. Char is a long-time educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools and Hamline University.
She enjoys the conversations she has with donors; she gets to hear their appreciation for the work of The Advocates, an appreciation she shares. Char loves alphabetizing and baking pies, including and donates a “perfect pie crust lesson” to The Advocates’ silent auction. She and her husband, former Board chair Sam Myers, have dedicated their time and energy to The Advocates for Human Rights over many years. Steve comes by his telephone skills from experience; he worked in sales for many years. He is a passionate advocate for women’s rights and ending human trafficking, and is proud of the work of The Advocates. When he’s not volunteering, Steve is outdoors, likely sailing or canoeing in and around the lakes of his hometown of Minneapolis.


Zonta Club of Minneapolis

Zonta envisions a world in which every woman is able to achieve her full potential. In such a world, every woman has access to education, health care, and legal and economic resources. In such a world, no woman lives in fear of violence. With more than 29,000 members in 63 countries, Zonta International advances the status of women around the world. Members volunteer their time and talents to participate in service projects, advocate for women’s access to civil and economic opportunities, and raise funds to support scholarships and other programs.
In 2016, the Zonta Club of Minneapolis selected The Advocates as its beneficiary for the following two years. Members learned about the challenges women refugees in Minnesota face. The Zontians selected and purchased large bags and filled them with much-needed winter accessories, towels, and other supplies. They also included information about Minnesota, the Twin Cities, and available resources. The assembled bags were then distributed to refugee and immigrant women receiving legal services from The Advocates. The Advocates is grateful to the Zonta Club for its partnership and support.


Somali 92 Team

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On December 7, 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attempted to deport 92 men and women to Somalia. The plane departed Louisiana for Somalia, but was grounded in Senegal, where it remained on the runway for 23 hours before returning to Miami. For almost two days, the men and women sat bound and shackled in an ICE-chartered airplane. People aboard the flight reported truly horrifying conditions. Even more alarming, ICE planned to deport them before any investigation into the mistreatment could be made.
The Advocates joined colleagues at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Binger Center for New Americans, the University of Miami School of Law’s Immigration Clinic, Legal Services of Broward County, Americans for Immigrant Justice, and the ACLU in seeking an injunction. When a federal judge in Miami ordered ICE to stop the deportations, provide medical care, and provide an opportunity to reopen the underlying deportation cases, the need for large-scale pro bono mobilization was clear. Working with colleagues at Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, The Advocates recruited pro bono attorneys from around the United States to file motions to reopen. Pro bono attorneys fought throughout 2018, and continue to fight, to reopen cases and win protection from deportation forthe people who had been aboard the flight. The Advocates recognizes and is grateful for these extraordinary volunteers.

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Domestic Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bringing the Issue to the UN

UPR cycle
Illustration of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review Process from The Advocates’ resource Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy

The UN Human Rights Council provides opportunities for non-governmental organizations to pursue human rights advocacy at the UN level through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process for reviewing the human rights records of States. Before the start of a particular country’s review, non-governmental organizations can submit a “stakeholder report” to the Council about the overall human rights situation or focusing on a specific issue in the country, relying on desk research and firsthand information.

Reporting on domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As an International Justice intern with The Advocates for Human Rights, I had the opportunity to work on the organization’s UPR stakeholder report about domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In my research, I focused on understanding victims’ experiences with key institutions that provide support for victims of domestic violence, such as centers for social work, courts, police, and safe houses. I found out that victims lack access to resources due to insufficient funding, poor multi-sectoral collaboration, and inadequate responses from some of the key actors mentioned above.

Based on this research, I assisted with compiling a report that The Advocates and our local partner Ženski Centar Trebinje submitted to the Human Right Council in March 2019 for the UPR of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which will take place in November 2019. Apart from shedding light on the issues that victims of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina face, our report put forth recommendations for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to improve its responses to domestic violence. You may find the report here.

A meaningful way to get involved with issues in my home country

Being from Bosnia and Herzegovina, I really appreciated the opportunity to get involved with this report. As much as I am grateful for my education in the United States, I wish that I could get physically involved with social movements and activism in my home country. While I was working on this report, my city held a protest because the Center for Social Work did not adequately respond to a domestic violence case perpetrated by a father against his daughters. Their mother issued a plea via Facebook, sharing how unsupported she felt by the institutions whose sole responsibility was to protect her daughters. Hearing her story made it even more important to engage with the issue of domestic violence.

Although I was not able to protest, I could at least voice her concerns in our report. By translating her story and bringing it to a space devoted to human rights, I made it possible for the relevant international actors to hear her story. To me, The Advocates’ work implies carrying messages from the local actors to international institutions, bridging the physical distance between the two, overcoming language barriers if there are any, and navigating the bureaucratic nature of international institutions.

Looking forward

While I cannot guarantee that delivering her message will have an impact on the case, nor that this report will eliminate domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina overnight, I recognize that advocacy at the UN, as a well-established mechanism, is a useful first step. It serves as a platform to raise awareness about issues and put pressure on government officials to implement the suggested solutions. Based on the recommendations from the 2014 UPR cycle Bosnia and Herzegovina established free legal aid clinics, but yet has to implement many more recommendations.

As part of the UPR process, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government delegation and UN member countries will engage in an interactive dialogue this November. Often, countries raise questions and suggest solutions based on stakeholder reports. I hope that they will voice the concerns that we included in the report and make a formal expectation for the Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to implement our recommendations, as important steps toward the elimination of domestic violence.

By Ana Gvozdić, a rising junior at Macalester College studying Political Science and Environmental Studies.  She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

To learn more about advocacy, check out The Advocates’ manual Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy”, and especially Chapter 9, which focuses on Advocacy at the United Nations.

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Eritrea and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: A Step-By-Step Guide to United Nations Advocacy

Eritrea
The Government delegation from Eritrea at the 125th Session of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland on 12 Mar 2019 [photo credit: UN Web TV]

Eritrea, a Sub-Saharan African country nestled between Sudan and Ethiopia with roughly the same size and population of Minnesota, is the center of alarming human rights abuses. Despite ratifying its Constitution in 1997, the government has not implemented that framework and instead retains a one-party dictatorship. The president, Isaias Afwerki, and his security apparatus have disregarded civil liberties and basic human rights, arbitrarily detaining people, holding detainees without due process and in inhuman conditions, mandating national service, and applying systematic torture both in prisons and national service facilities. Members of non-authorized religions face persecution.

In the face of grave human rights abuses, civil society has a powerful weapon: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). A State Party to the treaty since 2002, Eritrea is bound to its reporting and accountability measures. As an NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations, The Advocates for Human Rights works with U.N. mechanisms to hold States accountable for wrong-doing. And at the 125th Session of the Human Rights Committee, The Advocates did just that.

Introduction to the ICCPR Review Process

The first three steps in the ICCPR review process take place before the parties meet in Geneva. First, the State Party submits its report to the Committee. Eritrea failed to submit its report to the Committee, so it was more important than usual for civil society stakeholder reports to give a full picture of human rights in the country. Second, the Committee prepares a list of issues and questions for the State Party to consider. Third, members of civil society—referred to as “stakeholders”—compile reports of the country’s progress and failures in improving the state of civil and political rights since the previous review. Compiling information from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Department of State, recent U.N. investigations, and interviews with clients seeking asylum from Eritrea, The Advocates made sure that the Committee knew what the Eritrean Government was doing.

The primary accounts provided by our clients are some of the most important aspects of any report we submit to the United Nations. First, staff and interns in our Refugee and Immigrant Program interview asylum clients, detailing their experiences with human rights violations in their country of origin. When that country comes up for review at the U.N. Human Rights Committee, our International Justice Program staff and interns identify patterns in the client files that help describe the human rights situation. These unique experiences inform a more complete understanding of the State Party under review. We include that information in our report after receiving explicit permission from the clients in question. These client interviews confirm and illustrate the information that secondary reports provide about the State Party’s human rights practices.

Recommendations and Constructive Dialogue

In response to the bleak state of civil and political rights in Eritrea, The Advocates also suggested recommendations for the Committee to present to the State Party in order to improve its human rights practices. The Advocates makes several recommendations, such as to allow international observers to monitor the condition of Eritrean detention centers, to narrow the scope of the death penalty in the Penal Code, and to eliminate the registration process that creates “non-authorized” religions.

After receiving reports from civil society and the State Party, the Committee engages in a constructive dialogue with the State Party. During the dialogue, Committee members recognize the progress the State Party has made and recommend improvements and reforms for the State Party to adopt.

To watch the full constructive dialogue between the Human Rights Committee and the Government of Eritrea, click here.

During the review of the State Party, NGOs such as The Advocates can take several actions to promote their reports and recommendations. They can make oral interventions before the examination, participate in informal briefings with Committee members, and circulate shorter versions of their reports—one pagers—that highlight the most important points.

Concluding Observations

After State Party and stakeholders have had their say, the Committee compiles and releases its Concluding Observations on next steps that the State Party should take to improve its human rights practices. In the case of Eritrea, the Committee’s report adopted many of The Advocates’ conclusions and recommendations for:

  • holding human rights abusers accountable;
  • ending arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and the use of torture;
  • improving detention conditions;
  • ending severe—sometimes lethal—restrictions on freedom of movement;
  • improving conditions in national service, shortening the length of national service, creating alternatives for conscientious objectors, and ending the placement of minors in national service; and
  • guaranteeing freedom of religion.

With the report of the Human Rights Committee in hand, it is once again the duty of civil society to hold the government accountable and pressure Eritrean leaders to implement these recommendations. In the meantime, The Advocates will continue to offer asylum assistance to Eritreans fleeing the ongoing human rights violations.

To read our full report on Eritrea, click here.

To learn more about advocacy at the United Nations, read Chapter 9 of The Advocates’ groundbreaking publication, Human Rights Tools for a Changing World: A Step-by-step Guide to Human Rights Fact-finding, Documentation, and Advocacy.

To support our mission of advancing global human rights, consider volunteering with The Advocates.

Watch our volunteer, Olivia Leyba, testify at the U.N. Human Rights Council about Eritrea’s human rights practices.

 

By Benjamin Allard, International Justice Program intern and 2019 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where he majored in Political Science and Asian Languages & Literature. 

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Egypt: The Fight to End Their Excused Executions

During my time as an International Justice Program intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I have used my Lebanese background and Arabic language skills to dig deep into the lesser-known human rights violations occurring in the Middle East. More specifically, I have focused my research on Egypt and its increased use of the death penalty. Despite the United Nations interventions and the reports produced by international journalists on the issue, the violations have continued on, placing Egypt as the sixth highest nation for total number of people executed.

“Every Tuesday is execution day in Egypt, a trend established late last year [2018] with 23 killed since the end of December,” said ABC News correspondent Farid Farid.

2019 has been a big year for executions in Egypt. 15 people were executed in February alone. According to the Death Penalty Worldwide Organization, at least 22 people were executed in 2015, at least 44 in 2016, at least 35 in 2017, and 12 in 2018. All of these executions have been administered through hanging, for reasons including: terrorism, premeditated murder, crimes committed abroad that are harmful to state security, abduction of a female, threatening any member of Parliament, etc. The Egyptian Penal Code stipulates that the death penalty must be carried out in the presence of a prison guard, a public prosecutor, an official from the Ministry of Interior, the prison director general and doctor, as well as an additional doctor ordered by the Public Prosecution.

On February 20, 2019, the day I started researching this topic, 9 individuals were executed in Egypt for their involvement with the 2015 killing of Egypt’s General Prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. On February 13, 2019, 3 individuals were hanged for killing a police officer in 2013, and an additional 3 individuals were hanged on February 7, 2019 for their connection with the murder of an Egyptian judge’s son in 2017.  Prior to being executed, the individuals are held in detention centers under harsh conditions. The large number of arrests and the increased use of pretrial detention have resulted in extreme overcrowding, less access to resources, and a rising number of deaths in prisons.

“According to domestic and international nongovernmental NGO observers, prison cells were overcrowded, and prisoners lacked adequate access to medical care, proper sanitation and ventilation, food, and potable water,” stated in the US State Department Human Rights Report.

 As of 2014, there are 57 detention centers in Egypt. There is no limit on prison sentence length, which can also factor into the over-crowdedness of the facilities. There have been cases where prisoners detained for politically motivated charges have been held in solitary confinement for several years – which in and of itself is torture. Amnesty International has documented 36 cases of prisoners held in prolonged solitary confinements in Egypt since 2013.  Due to the extreme amounts of torture, 9 detainees have died while in custody, according to Human Rights Watch.

Despite Egypt’s support for the death penalty, they do have their restrictions on the conditions for when and how it can take place. According to the Penal Code, executions may not be administered on official holidays, including religious holidays of the convict’s faith. Although this has not been followed through entirely, the convict’s family is only allowed to visit them the day before they are executed. In addition, the Egyptian government is responsible to pay the expenses for the burial, unless the family has other wishes, and the burial must not have a ceremony.

After reading countless of stories about executions in Egypt and various countries, I am more aware and driven to continue to spread awareness on this issue. More than 160 countries have abolished the death penalty or refuse to practice it, but the fight to end it worldwide is not done yet. Whether it is administered for cultural, religious, or traditional reasons, the death penalty is a human rights violation that should not be tolerated.

 “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century,” stated on the United nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner website.

Egypt’s use of the death penalty doesn’t seem to have an end date in the near future unless the international community proceeds with the fight for its abolishment. The Advocates for Human Rights continues to work at putting a stop to this human rights violation through their international advocacy as a steering committee member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, as a chair of the World Day Against the Death penalty, and through their submissions to the United Nations human rights bodies. Regardless of if it’s China, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, or any of the other countries that continue to practice such torturous methods, the death penalty should not be administered and should cease to exist worldwide.

Celine Ammash is a rising University of Minnesota senior majoring in Global Studies.  She was a spring 2019 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the University’s Human Rights Internship class.

 

Peaceful Protests Met With Excessive Force in Belarus

Recent days in Belarus has seen egregious violence, police brutality, suppression of freedom of assembly and expression, and threats to a fair and free election process for president. The President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has been the leader of Belarus for 26 years. In 1991, Belarus gained independence from the Soviet Union. On August 9th, 2020, presidential elections were once again held. The two leading candidates were President Lukashenko and Ms. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Ms. Tikhanovskaya ran in place of her husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky. Early voting ran from August 4th until August 8th. According to activist groups, beginning on July 22nd, the Central Elections Commission limited the number of observers at the voting stations, stating this was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The result was only 11.5% of the trained monitors had access to the voting stations and only for a limited amount of time.

When the election results came in, the Central Elections Committee declared President Lukashenko won re-election with more than 80% of the votes. Ms. Tikhanovskaya refused to recognize the results, stating that her data from the voting stations indicated she had actually received around 70-90% of the votes. Activists stated that other organizations, including “Platform ‘Holas’”, reported similar findings and that voters had published photos of final voting reports from a number of voting stations all of Belarus with the unfalsified results.

After the results were announced on August 9th, citizens gathered in the streets of Minsk and other cities in Belarus to peacefully protest. During that first day, more than 3,000 were arrested. Their peaceful, unarmed protest was met by excessive force by the Belarusian police. This force included tear gas, flash-bang grenades, water cannons, rubber bullets, and beatings. Similar events took place on the second evening, with more than 2,000 people detained.

Before the third evening of protests began on August 11th, activists reported police began to make “preventive” arrests of those who seemed suspicious. That evening, there was a crackdown on journalists, with police beating journalists and breaking their equipment. Eventually protestors began to throw bricks at the police; the police chased protestors and brutally detain them.  Children and other bystanders were included in the arrests. Cars were damaged by the police and drivers were beaten and arrested. Overall, activists reported 6,000 people are said to have been arrested during those three days, although the independent mass media source Nasha Niva believes this number to be underestimated. Around 50 of those arrested were journalists. Amnesty International and other local groups have reported protestors have described “being tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment in detention centres, including being stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape.”.

 President Lukashenko continues to refuse a recount, instead accusing opposition of attempting a coup. Neighboring states refuse to recognize the re-election of President Lukashenko and calling for free elections. Since August 12, 2020, there continue to be peaceful protests and strikes in Minsk and other cities. Strikes include employees at a state-run factor, a demographic that has historically supported the president. Internationally, President Putin has pledged Russian assistance to President Lukashenko should Belarus be invaded and has warned both President Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel against interfering. EU leaders called an emergency summit, after which they stated “they would not recognize the results of the recent Belarus election and would shortly impose sanctions on those who were involved in electoral fraud and the repression of protests.”, with details  to bedeveloped. The leaders released a joint statement supporting those on the streets in Belarus, being cautious to avoid stating they do not recognize the authority of President Lukashenko. Finally, they offered to assist the government and the opposition mediation. In addition, it was announced that 53 million Euros will be re-directed from the state of Belarus to non-governmental organizations, victim assistance and COVID relief.

While talks continue, President Lukashenko has once again ordered police back on the streets, stating ‘There should no longer be any disorder in Minsk of any kind.”. After several days of peaceful protests and an absence of law enforcement, police vans are in the streets, and officers have been stationed outside factories. With this increased presence of law enforcement, the use of excessive police force against peaceful protestors must be condemned. “Her Team” has released a report that details several other violations and abuses, including illegal detentions, inhuman treatment and torture, internet shutdowns, and harassment and threats against women political opposition leaders. 


By Elizabeth Montgomery, Staff Attorney, Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates For Human Rights.


The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals.

The New Price for Asylum

The Trump Administration announced on July 31 that it had issued a final rule regarding fees charged by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for immigration benefit applications.  The Rule reflects not only a questionable shift in how USCIS funding works, but also a significant change in our national treatment of migrants.   

According to USCIS, “The rule accounts for increased costs to adjudicate immigration benefit requests, detect and deter immigration fraud, and thoroughly vet applicants, petitioners and beneficiaries. The rule also supports payroll, technology and operations to accomplish the USCIS mission.”[1]  While the office is provided funding through Congressional appropriations for general operations, it is a largely fee-based agency.  Fees fund nearly 97% of USCIS’ budget.  Meaning, the people applying for immigration benefits cover the costs of processing their applications by paying fees associated with those applications.  With the increase in fees, however, USCIS now seeks to have migrants not only cover the costs of processing, but to cover the additional costs of “fraud prevention” and operations that have resulted from the Administration’s efforts to make processes more difficult, utilize USCIS staff for immigration enforcement efforts, and deter applicants.  The structure of the rule, however, makes clear that the Trump Administration believes the most vulnerable should shoulder this burden. 

For example, the fee for a waiver of inadmissibility—usually required by applications who have prior immigration violations or criminal issues that would otherwise prevent their ability to obtain immigration benefits—is increasing from $930 to $1,400—a 51% increase.  Compare this to the fee for a petition for immigrant worker (Form I-140), which is decreasing from $700 to $555—a 21% decrease.  The application for a travel document is increasing by 3% from $575 to $590, while a Refugee Travel Document is increasing by 7% from $135 to $145.  Applications for suspension of deportation is increasing 535 percent from $285 to $1,810.  And, fees for applying for naturalization are increasing by 81 to 266 percent (depending on type of application). 

Perhaps most egregiously, however, is the new inclusion for the first time in our history of a fee to apply for asylum.  This makes the U.S. one of only three countries in the world—amongst us, Iran and Australia—to charge to obtain protection from persecution and torture.  

Applications for asylum have traditionally been free, and they remain that way for the majority of countries in the world.  This reflects the reality that those fleeing persecution and torture are the least able to afford application fees.  As we know from many of our clients at The Advocates, asylum applicants have often been forced to flee their homes with very little notice—bringing with them only what they could quickly and covertly carry, with no time to liquidate assets.  Additionally, many must pay exorbitant fees for travel into the U.S. or to help secure relevant travel documentation.  In other cases, they may have spent all of their savings—and that of friends and family—to bribe their way out of jail lest they face certain death in their home countries.  These are not the stories of individuals relocating to the U.S. for business opportunities or to be near family.  As Warsan Shire explains: “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark….” 

Yet, with this rule—in concert with myriad others proposed and implemented by the Administration seemingly since its first month in office—the United States is turning itself into another shark.  No longer will the United States be welcoming those for whom migration is a last resort; instead, it will be saying that one must pay the price for safety or look elsewhere. 

While a filing fee would have been an affront previously, this is all the more disturbing given the significant narrowing of approvals under the Administration’s many new rules.  For example, the Administration has worked to nearly strip the right to apply for asylum as a victim of domestic of violence or due to threats from gangs and cartels.  In other instances, it is working to expand bars for those perceived to persecute others, committed certain crimes, and more.  Cases that we previously would have felt confident to see approved are now being referred to immigration judges who may also deny them.  Thus, a $50 filing fee without a guarantee of protection is an affront to the human rights of migrants as well as the laws of the United States, which specifically enshrine the rights of asylum seekers and torture victims.

This rule also comes at the same time DHS issued its final rule significantly contracting the rights of asylum seekers to obtain authorization to work in the United States.  Already, we know that many of our clients must depend on friends and community-members to survive after making the perilous journey to the U.S.  Additionally, many asylum seekers are coping with trauma from torture while working to calm the nerves of their children who have journeyed with them.  Others are working to learn basic English, bus routes, cultural nuances, and significant weather changes—all while quickly preparing their asylum cases before the one-year bar elapses.  Now, they must do so without the prospect of work authorization for one-year (possibly not until their case is approved for someone who entered without inspection or failed to apply within one-year of entry) and pay the $50 filing fee simply for the opportunity to have their case heard.  While we see through our work incredible stories of community support and asylee resilience, we also know that many of our clients experience further exploitation by those on whom they are forced to depend.  Extending the wait time for employment authorization, demanding a filing fee, and restricting grants for asylum or prolonging the process extend the likelihood of exploitation and harm, violate the human rights of asylum seekers, and betray our roots as a leader in refugee protections. 


By Lindsey Greising, Staff Attorney with the Research, Education and Advocacy team at The Advocates for Human Rights

[1] https://www.uscis.gov/news/news-releases/uscis-adjusts-fees-to-help-meet-operational-needs